This new edition and English translation (by Michael Chase) of the 2001 Spanish study of the gold tablets by Bernabé and Jiménez (henceforth BJ) is a welcome, if not unproblematic, addition to the recent spate of scholarship on the fascinating and mysterious gold tablets. This volume follows upon several recent editions of the tablets: by Pugliese Carratelli in 2001 ( Le lamine d’oro orfiche) and the French translation in 2003, the Italian edition of Tortorelli Ghidini in 2006 ( Figli della terra e del cielo stellato), and the study of Graf and Johnston in 2007 ( Ritual texts for the afterlife).1 BJ’s edition is the most complete and up-to-date collection of texts, and their critical apparatus for these difficult texts far surpasses all of the other editions, making this volume the best source for serious study of the texts of these tablets. The translations and interpretations are more problematic, however. The translations are at times awkward, and they are separated from the Greek texts, which are located in an appendix at the end, as well as divided up into different chapters. Anyone seeking a quick overview of the tablets would have to flip back and forth between chapters and the appendix, making the book less user-friendly than other recent studies. The interpretations are even more of a problem, however, since the argument of the book seeks to use the tablets to establish a particular idea of Orphism. The argumentation is often weak and circular, presenting a deeply flawed model of Orphism as a religious movement that is like a Christian sect.
The book is organized into twelve chapters, with two appendices devoted to the texts of the tablets and to various images associated with the netherworld. A detailed, four page, table of contents outlines every section of each chapter, and there is a good index locorum as well as a general index to the book, so even uninitiated readers can find their way with relative ease to particular points. However, despite such handy instructions, the uninitiated reader may well find herself wandering in circles through the arguments of the book, since the structure of the argument often presumes knowledge of the tablets or their context that is discussed at later points. The first eight chapters treat different types of tablets within the corpus assembled by BJ, while chapters nine and ten sum up the arguments about the Orphic religious context which the authors imagine to have produced the tablets. Chapter eleven provides an unsystematic comparison of elements in the tablets with similar elements that appear in other cultures, while the final chapter revisits, with slightly different emphasis and conclusions, the nature of the texts. For the most part, this English edition follows the Spanish edition, although new sections are added in several chapters, and chapters ten and eleven are new to this edition.
Graf and Johnston provide the only other translation into English, and anyone intending to offer these texts to an audience without Greek should prefer their translation, which is free from the numerous infelicities and awkward choices that mar Michael Chase’s rendering of the tablets in this volume. While most of his translation of the book is of good quality, some of the translations of poetic verses, including those from the tablets, rely too heavily on cognates with the Spanish, creating distortions of meaning in English. The Spanish “los límpidos” for Greek
Unlike the recent editions of Graf and Johnston and Tortorelli Ghidini, which arrange the tablets geographically, according to their findspots, BJ follow the lead of Zuntz3 in arranging the tablets typologically, according to the nature of the text, and the order of the first eight chapters follows this division. In each chapter, BJ provide a translation of the tablets discussed and then commentary upon selected features of interest. The texts themselves are not given in the chapters, but in the appendix, which occasionally creates some problems, and the commentaries are not systematic or comprehensive, but follow the shape of BJ’s argument about the nature of Orphism.
The first set of tablets to be considered are those in which the deceased identifies herself as the Child of Earth and starry Heaven, the B group of Zuntz’s classification. BJ consider these tablets, both the long versions from Hipponion, Entella, Petelia, and Pharsalos and the shorter ones from Crete, to describe the arrival of the deceased in the underworld and to provide instructions for his actions there. Next, following the order of Bernabé’s 2005 edition of the Orphica, come the two tablets from Pelinna, whose text differs from any others found. However, BJ place these in between the first set and the tablets from Thurii in the following chapters, because of the reference to bacchoi in the Hipponion tablet and to Bacchios in the Pelinna tablets on the one hand, and the appearance of the bizarre ‘animal in milk’ formula in both the Pelinna and Thurii tablets on the other. These tablets from Thurii, the A series in Zuntz’s typology, take up the next four chapters, since BJ treat the inner tablet from Timpone Grande, which has yet another different text, in one chapter, the three tablets from Timpone Piccolo, which all bear similar texts, in another, and the anomalously late, second century CE text from Rome in the third. The peculiar outer tablet from Timpone Grande (Zuntz’s C tablet) has its own chapter, in which BJ explain the enigmatic tablet as a sort of “‘word search puzzle’ for deceiving non-initiates” Here the choice to separate the translation from the text is particularly deceptive, since BJ print in the translation only the words they imagine they can find in the jumble of letters that makes up the text on the tablet, and they arrange these words according to a logic of relations that fits with their preconceived ideas of the Orphic context of the text. (I would suggest that this tablet is better compared to a Rohrschach blot than a word search puzzle, since every scholarly reconstruction of its contents has tended to reflect the presuppositions of the reconstructer.) Chapter seven is devoted to the tablets from Pherai that contain greetings to Persephone and/or passwords for the deceased, while chapter eight discusses the various gold tablets with little text on them that have in recent years been classed with the tablets that actually do contain instructions for the netherworld. BJ spend little time justifying their inclusion, merely commenting that they “seem to belong to this same religious atmosphere” (p. 164).4
This religious atmosphere, of course, is BJ’s construct of Orphism as a religious sect, defined by its doctrines as Christian sects are by their creeds. In chapters nine and ten, BJ elaborate on their hypothesis of such a sect, although its existence is assumed throughout the commentaries of the previous chapters and is, indeed, crucial to many of their interpretations of the enigmatic texts. Not only can such circular argumentation be confusing to those not already familiar with their ideas, but the circular arguments undermine the validity of their entire reconstruction of the religious context of the gold tablets.
Consider, for example, this argument from the final chapter: “The fact that the tablets were folded as a ritual act intended to conceal the sacred words is an attractive hypothesis” (p. 239). This kind of confusion between fact and hypothesis troubles the whole book. It is a fact that (some of) the gold tablets were folded; it is a hypothesis that such folding was a ritual act with such a purpose. However attractive or even plausible such a hypothesis might be, there is no actual evidence to support it. BJ take the fact as evidence for the hypothesis, creating a vicious circle in which the hypothesis is created to explain the fact and then the fact is used as evidence to support the hypothesis.
While the conflation of fact and hypothesis is not always as grammatically clear as in this example, this type of logic underlies their entire argument for the Orphic nature of the tablets. BJ put forth a hypothesis of a single religious movement they term Orphism to explain the facts of the gold tablets, but then use the gold tablets as the primary evidence for that movement, claiming that the tablets “give us direct access to the most ancient stages of Orphic religion and literature” (p. 1). The access that these puzzling texts provides to their religious context is, however, not direct, but necessarily mediated by the interpretive hypotheses used to make sense of their abbreviated, obscure, and fragmentary contents. BJ put forth the hypothesis of a single sect, with a clearly defined set of doctrines, to explain the whole mass of facts provided, not just by the gold tablets, but by all the references to Orphic texts and rites and indeed to all the doctrines they imagine as Orphic.
BJ aver that a single sect is the simplest explanation of the facts, and they claim that calling that sect Orphic further satisfies the demands for simplicity. “It is obvious, however, that if we do not do so, the explanation becomes more complicated” (p. 203). They repeatedly fall back on the protestation that, “Although each of these features may perhaps be found in other environments, there exists no other religious movement in which they all coincide.” (p. 204, cf., e.g. p. 184, 189, et al.) Such an argument, of course, raises the question whether there is actually any single religious movement that underlies all of the tablets or whether the grouping of these texts on gold lamellae into a single category blurs and distorts the differences between the religious contexts that produced the different texts. The appeal to the coincidence of features is problematic in any case, since, although the various tablets do indeed show a certain “thematic continuity” (p. 184), all the features that make up BJ’s definition of Orphism never in fact coincide in any of the individual tablet texts (or, indeed, in any of the other pieces of evidence they discuss). Once again, the collected facts of particular features of the tablet texts are used to “prove” a hypothesis formed to explain the variety of facts.
Even the specious appeal to the simplicity of a single sect explanation founders when the evidence is considered in the broader context of Greek religion. As recent decades of research into the nature of ancient Greek polytheism have made clear, the modes of social organization that shaped religious practice were significantly different from the more familiar ones of later Christianity. The apparently simple hypothesis of a single sect defined by its doctrines is only simple if one presumes a context in which such sects are the familiar mode; in another context, such as that of ancient Greek religion, hypothesizing such an exceptional entity becomes much more complicated, since one need also explain, among other things, the means by which the sect preserved its organizations and transmitted its doctrines throughout the more than a millennium from which BJ’s evidence is drawn. Orphism has often been uncritically treated as the exception within ancient Greek religion, but such an exceptional and anomalous status is hardly the simplest or best explanation of the evidence.
The model of Orphism that BJ put forth throughout their arguments in this volume owes too much to later Christian models to be a plausible explanation for these ancient Greek gold tablets. BJ imagine as the source of the tablets “a minority group, with a certain unity of beliefs, probably initiates, or followers of a religious movement which, after several years of doubt, we must now, without hesitation, call ‘Orphic'” (p. 2). Although BJ do not, like scholars in the first half of the twentieth century, explicitly attribute to the Orphics the ideas of sin and the soul that shaped Christianity, this sect is still significant for them because of the way their religious ideas infiltrated into mainstream thought. They “exerted a powerful influence on other Greek authors and thinkers: some Pre-Socratic philosophers, lyric poets like Pindar, Plato, and then the Neoplatonists” (p. 1). Like the religious movements in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and unlike anything else in ancient Greek religion), BJ’s Orphics rely on their sacred scriptures for authority; Orpheotelests “depend on the holiness of the written word; in other words, it is the possession and control of Orphic writings that confers on them their authority” (p. 91), while “constant recourse to the text is one of the key differences between Orphism and Dionysism” (p. 190).
The members of this group are often explicitly compared by BJ to members of Christian sects. This group, like a sect, is a distinct set of initiates, who maintain a way of life separate from that of others, and the
The doctrines that define Orphism for BJ are a belief in an original sin, committed by mankind’s ancestors, the Titans, that leads the faithful to renounce mundane living for a life of purity and penance, a hope of salvation from this sin and reward in the afterlife, a doctrine of reincarnations for those who have not been absolved, and the idea of an ultimate identification with the salvific god Dionysos for the initiate. None of these ideas is entirely without basis in the ancient evidence, but they all represent serious distortions of that evidence, a problem compounded by the assumption that all of these doctrines are found in any context that provides some kind of evidence for one.
The puritanical rejection of mundane living, for example, is a composite of all the purificatory taboos associated with the name of Orpheus in all the evidence. “According to what we know of the Orphics, expiatory purification included the observance of a series of precepts, such as a vegetarian diet, abstinence from beans and eggs, and the prohibition of wearing wool, as well as a certain degree of sexual renunciation” (p. 101). While all of these purificatory practices are indeed attested, there is no evidence that anyone observed all of these taboos at once or that these were all lifelong, rather than temporary, practices. BJ’s picture of the Orphic life curiously omits any reference to the one mention of an Orphikos bios — a passage in Plato’s Laws (782 c = OT 212 = 625iB, not in BJ’s index locorum) that refers to refraining from blood sacrifice. Instead, they repeatedly cite a fragment from Euripides’ Cretans (fr. 472=Porphyry De Abst. 4.56 = OF 567
This idea of Orphic puritanism leads BJ to some problematic arguments in their explication of the tablets. For example, they reject the idea that the reference in one of the Thurii tablets (L9) to passing beneath the lap or bosom could be linked with the story of Zeus’ rape of Persephone in the form of a snake or the Sabazian formula of the god through the lap, since “the sexual atmosphere seems particularly far removed from the Orphic rituals and from Orphic life in general, which is characterized by unadulterated puritanism” (p. 129). An even more troubling example is when they dismiss the archaeological context of the tablets with the generalization that “This renunciation is accompanied by an almost complete absence of funerary furniture in these tombs” (p. 45). While it is indeed true that the Hipponion tablet (L1) was found in a grave with only modest grave goods, most of the graves in the huge Hipponion necropolis had similarly modest grave goods, whereas the Pharsalos tablet was found in an elaborate bronze funeral hydria and the tombs at Thurii and Pelinna had a number of valuable grave items. The circular argumentation that maps the hypothesized doctrines back on to the evidence thus leads to distortions or deletions of important evidence that doesn’t fit the hypothesis. The consequences of their generalization about Orphic puritanism are even more striking when one considers the tomb in which the Derveni papyrus was found, a grave stuffed with a variety of grave goods, the martial character of many of which belies any Orphic separation from the world.6
The topic of the supposed Orphic idea of original sin, stemming from the Titans’ murder of Dionysos, has been debated elsewhere, and BJ do little more than refer to Bernabé’s articles on the subject to support their hypothesis of “the founding myth of Orphic doctrine” (p. 113). I have detailed my arguments elsewhere against this idea, so I will confine my comments to the effects this hypothesized doctrine has upon BJ’s interpretation of the tablets.7 Although only two (nearly identical) tablets from Thurii (L10a & b) mention paying the penalty for unjust deeds, BJ see the idea of absolution from the Titans’ crime as a central motif in all the tablets. The reward for this expiation, they claim, is escape from the cycle of reincarnations, and they see this as the desired reward after death for all those buried with the tablets. This conclusion has implications for a number of their interpretations of particular passages in the tablets. They reject the reading of
The cycle of reincarnations is only one of the Platonic ideas about the nature of the soul that BJ project onto their construct of Orphism. Although they rightly reject (p. 54) Guthrie’s reconstruction of the Orphic view of the afterlife from Plato’s myths, they make the same mistake themselves of collecting a number of ideas from Plato (only some of which are linked with Orpheus), hypothesizing that Plato drew on Orphic sources, and then using the Platonic details to reconstruct the lost Orphic evidence. They do admit that Plato transformed earlier ideas about the soul and its destiny for his own purposes, but, in a series of circular arguments, they take the Platonic ideas that fit with their definition of Orphism to be Orphic and those that do not to be Platonic innovations. For example, they disregard the word play that Plato uses in the Phaedo to twist the ideas to the situation of Socrates’ imprisonment in the dialogue, arguing that “In the Orphic conception, whoever commits suicide is guilty of a fault similar to that of someone escaping from jail before serving his appointed sentence” (p. 107). This is a Platonic transformation, not an Orphic doctrine, even if Plato makes allusions to the mysteries elsewhere in the dialogue. Such distortions do an injustice both to Plato’s philosophical innovations and to the diverse religious traditions upon which he was drawing.
Relying on discredited ideas of Rohde and Dodds about the union of the bacchic mystic with Dionysos, BJ propose that the ultimate reward of the faithful is an identification with the salvific god, Dionysos. “The result for the initiate, both in initiation and death, is the passage to a state of felicity, coinciding with identification with the god” (p. 98, cf. p. 185).8 So complete is this identification, for BJ, that they interpret the reference to a Mother among the jumble of tablet L12 from Thurii as Persephone the mother of Dionysos, “also alluded to as a mother by the speaker of the prayer, because he aspires to be identified with the god.” (p. 149) The references, in L8 and L9 from the Thurii, to transformation into a god are better explained with reference to other kinds of models of apotheosis (Semele, Herakles, Asclepius, Lysander, etc.), and the other afterlife rewards mentioned in the other tablets should not be obscured by the assumption of a single goal for all.
A number of other weak or circular arguments undermine the validity of the authors’ idea of Orphism. Their arguments from parallels are among the weakest, since they often make the claim of some connection based merely upon a few points of similarity. Their section (10.6) on the parallels between the gods mentioned in the gold tablets and in other Orphic texts disregards the fact that most of these same deities are found in other texts as well. Likewise in section 10.3, it is true that Southern Italy, Thessaly, and Crete, where many tablets have been found, have associations with Orpheus, but many places, from the Laconia to Thrace, have associations with Orpheus and no tablets. The weakness of such arguments is unfortunately most clear in the chapter (11) on parallels to the tablets in other cultures, where similarities between elements are unsystematically compared to draw conclusions about cultural influence. For example, because some later Persian texts refer to demons as potential obstacles in the afterlife, BJ conclude, “Above all, the double existence in the Beyond of demons and Eumenides, as described in the Derveni Papyrus, or alluded to by the Aristophanic
The second appendix, treating images of the netherworld, is a similar collection of unsystematic connections. While the iconographic evidence, like the cross-cultural evidence, is too often neglected in studies of Greek religious ideas, Ricardo Olmos’ treatment of the images in this appendix offers speculative and often wildly imaginative explanations to go with his detailed descriptions (accompanied by some useful line drawings by Sara Olmos) of Greek images that might be connected with the netherworld. Some images, however, like no. 1 of a woman holding a scroll, are included only because the scroll might be an afterlife text, while even images more clearly associated with death and afterlife are linked to the tablets through weak and unconvincing speculations. An Etruscan sarcophagus, no. 9, of a woman holding a kantharos with a fawn nearby is compared with the imagery of the kid in milk formula, with the conclusion that, “The woman from Tarquinia, a noble aristocrat, will have held Orphic-Dionysiac beliefs that were in full bloom at the time in Greek colonies of South Italy…The animal would be the image of a god-child, nursed after his birth, and the maenad his divine nurse-maid, a veritable kourotrophos goddess, freed from her mortality, raised up the sphere of the dii animales” (p. 304). Treating these images as evidence for the spread of BJ’s imagined Orphism obscures the significance such images might have had in their real cultural context, detracting from, rather than adding to, scholarly understanding of Greek religion in this period and region.
In sum, BJ’s treatment of the gold tablets is deeply and substantially flawed, with problematic arguments producing conclusions that, because of their speciously simple model of Orphism as a sect, have the potential to seriously mislead scholars trying to understand these fascinating relics of ancient Greek religion. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, there are many interesting and useful observations on the tablets and their texts scattered throughout the book. The philological elements of the volume, however, are stronger than the religious historical models and reasoning. BJ’s edition of the tablets in appendix 1 is a valuable addition to the scholarship on these texts, particularly the critical apparatus that outlines the past hundred years of scholarship on these enigmatic texts. Their conclusions about the origins of the tablet texts, rejecting a single archetype, are sound, even though they contradict BJ’s acceptance of Riedweg’s hypothetical archetype elsewhere in the volume. “Each poet strings together these well-known, formulaic utterances that derive from tradition, mixed with varied mortar of other verses from the Orphic corpus, Homeric formulas, etc., according to the greater or lesser competence of their author. This diverse origin also gives a satisfactory explanation of the dialectical mixtures we constantly find in our documents” (p. 231).10 This bricolage model for poetic composition would work better to explain the religious context of the tablets than the single sect model BJ propose. As Burkert showed over twenty-five years ago, the ancient evidence for Orphica is not compatible with the kind of coherent religious movement BJ imagine. Instead, a model of independent religious craftsmen plying their trade for a broad range of clients provides a better explanation of the data.11 BJ’s reconstruction of the context as a sect, rather than a craft, coupled with the awkward translations and the book’s circular structures of argument, limit the usefulness of this volume to scholars looking for instruction to guide them through the murky netherworld of the gold tablets and their religious contexts.
1. My review of Graf and Johnston may also be found in BMCR 2007.10.35. My own 2004 study of the tablets does not include an edition or translation, but a collection of essays I am editing ( The Orphic Gold Tablets and Greek Religion: A Reader, forthcoming from Cambridge) includes an edition of the texts (based largely on Bernabé’s), my own translations, and essays from a number of scholars in the field, including Graf and Bernabé & Jiménez.
3. Günther Zuntz, Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia, Oxford, 1971.
4. They are omitted by Pugliese Carratelli and Tortorelli Ghidini, but Graf and Johnston also include many of these tablets with minimal text, again with little justification for their classification with the longer tablets. The choice to include or exclude seems to be based on implicit (and unargued) definitions of what is Orphic. Interestingly, BJ choose to exclude the gold tablet from Manisa that they included in the Spanish edition, rightly concluding that the presence of the word ‘guardians’ is not enough to classify the text as an Orphic gold tablet rather than a gold protective or other sort of magical amulet.
5. This comparison dominates the scholarship on Orphism in the early twentieth century, most explicitly in Watmough, J. R. (1934). Orphism, Cambridge.
6. BJ also ignore the archaeological context of the Hipponion tomb when they suggest (p. 237) that the Hipponion deceased may have intended the lamp in her grave to read her gold tablet’s instructions for the netherworld journey, since nearly all the graves in that vast necropolis had lamps. The significance of a lamp in a grave must be understood within the broader context of local burial practices, not taken in isolation to support a hypothesis that ignores other evidence.
7. Bernabé has argued, against my critique in Edmonds 1999, for the centrality of the Zagreus myth to Orphism in two articles. (Edmonds, R. (1999). Tearing apart the Zagreus myth: a few disparaging remarks on orphism and original sin. Classical Antiquity 18(1): 1-24. Bernabé, A. (2002). La toile de Pénélope: a-t-il existé un mythe orphique sur Dionysos et les Titans? Revue de l’histoire des religions 219.4: 401-433; Bernabé, A. (2003). Autour du mythe orphique sur Dionysos et les Titans. Quelque notes critiques. Des Géants à Dionysos. Mélanges offerts à F. Vian. D. A. P. Chuvin. Alessandria: 25-39.) I have offered a detailed response in an essay published online at the Center for Hellenic Studies, ( “Recycling Laertes’ Shroud”), to be expanded and reworked in my forthcoming study, Redefining Ancient Orphism.
8. Henrichs has effectively refuted such outmoded ideas, pointing out that the similarity between the god (Bacchos) and his worshippers (bacchai) lies in the fact that the god joins in the ritual celebration: “it does not amount to a ‘fusion’ of god and mortal, let alone to an ‘identification’ with the divine through some kind of sacramental union or even communion.” (Henrichs, Albert (1993). “He Has a God in Him”: Human and Divine in the Modern Perceptions of Dionysus. Masks of Dionysus. eds. Faraone and Carpenter. Cornell: 20) The Durkheimian idea of Dionysos as the projection of the thiasos group with which the primitive ecstatics identify in their frenzy is not a helpful way of understanding the aims of those buried with the gold tablets.
9. The footnotes indicate that several of these cross-cultural comparisons are the subjects of dissertations in progress by some of Bernabé’s doctoral students, so perhaps the brief summaries and unconvincing claims in this chapter are not representative of the potential arguments to be made.
10. BJ elsewhere in the book accept the reconstruction by Riedweg of a single hieros logos from which all the elements of the tablets are excerpted, arguing explicitly for it on p. 181. (Riedweg, Christoph (1998). “Initiation – Tod – Unterwelt: Beobachtungen zur Kommunikationssituation und narrativen Technik der orphisch-bakchischen Goldblättchen.” Ansichten griechischer Rituale: Geburtstags-Symposium für Walter Burkert, ed. Fritz Graf, B.G. Teubner: Stuttgart und Leipzig: 359-398.) Such a model of a single sacred scripture fits their hypothesis of a single sect that relies on the authority of its scripture better than the more sophisticated bricolage model articulated in their concluding chapter, but the bricolage model fits the evidence better.
11. Burkert’s 1982 article remains fundamental understanding the evidence for Orphica in ways that escape the Christianocentric scholarly models of the early twentieth century (Burkert, W. (1982). “Craft Versus Sect: The Problem of Orphics and Pythagoreans.” Jewish and Christian Self-Definition: Volume Three – Self-Definition in the Greco-Roman World. Meyers and Sanders. Philadelphia: 1-22.)