BMCR 2013.10.45

Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. Second edition (first published 2007)

, , Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. Second edition (first published 2007). London; New York: Routledge, 2013. 284. ISBN 9780415508032. $37.95 (pb).

The focus of this review is on the new features of the second edition. For detailed and substantive reviews of the first edition, the reader is directed to the reviews by Franco Ferrari (BMCR 2007.10.15) and Radcliffe G. Edmonds III (BMCR 2007.10.35).

The book’s overall format is much the same as that of the first edition, although there are notable improvements. A more comprehensive map of the find-spots of the tablets has been added, as well as a helpful concordance that compares Graf and Johnston’s enumeration of the tablets with those found in the editions by Bernabé, Bernabé-Jiménez, Zuntz, Riedweg, Pugliese, Tzifopoulos, and Edmonds. The bibliography on the actual tablets (pp. 1-47) has been thoroughly updated, as has that for the book itself. The chapters have been lightly revised, but the bulk of the new material is contained in three new appendixes: Appendix 1 addresses “Orphism in the Twenty-first Century,” Appendix 2 treats the tablets from Pherae, and Appendix 3 tablets from Roman Palestine. The first edition’s appendix of supplementary Bacchic texts (now Appendix 4) remains unchanged.

As in the first edition, the authors trade off the writing responsibilities. Fritz Graf opens the discussion in Appendix 1 with an examination of the parameters of “Orphism” or, put more precisely, Orphika – “the things that belong to Orpheus.” He establishes that in antiquity Orphism was not a free-standing, uniform, movement. The closest it came to being one was when Proclus and other Neoplatonic philosophers characterized it as a school and Orphikoi as its practitioners. While this understanding was primarily a result of the philosophers’ own projection (and retrojection), their surmises were not entirely without warrant. Graf observes that, “Even in the fifth and fourth centuries [BCE], ‘Things Orphic’ had clear contours and were much more than the weird and incoherent phenomena contemporary minimalists claim them to be” (192-3). In this assessment Graf is clearly taking issue with the reductionism of Radcliffe Edmonds and others who have attempted to discount the impact of Orphika.1 Graf, however, rightly concludes that “conscientious reconstruction” is a necessity for responsible historical scholarship, and that such reconstruction results in a view that ascribes a moderate religious importance to Orphic texts and practitioners.

As the newest tablet from Pherae (their tablet no. 28) had only just become available at the time of the first edition, Appendix 2 is intended to take fuller account of it. Sarah Iles Johnston observes that the two tablets from Pherae (nos. 27 and 28) are distinctive in manifesting a common link to Demeter, Persephone, and to a goddess entitled “the Mountain Mother.” The tablets also display distinctive passwords: “Andrikepaidothyrson” (“Man-and-child-and thyrsus”) in No. 27 and “Brimo” in No. 28 – the first appearance of this word in any Greek text. Though a complicated trajectory, where she draws upon the principle of “ bricolage ” (cf. 70-73; 82-93), Johnston discerns a mythic complex underlying both tablets. It begins with Persephone’s rape, Demeter’s grief, and Persephone’s delivery of Dionysus. Dionysus perishes, is revived, and finally purified and educated by Rhea. Johnston hypothesizes that this intervention by Rhea/the Mother indicates that she was thought to occupy a prominent role in the protection and regeneration of Dionysian initiates.

Appendix 3 discusses eleven gold lamellae, dating from the second or third century C.E., which originated in Roman Palestine. Their texts can be resolved into three distinct groupings. The first consists of what Graf calls the “full formula” – “Take heart [( name()], no one is immortal.” 2 The second group expresses half the formula – “Take heart [( name()],” while the third features the imperative alone – “Take heart.” Graf interprets all the formulae as affirmations that death would turn out well for the deceased; the lamellae encouraged them to face bravely the perils involved in a passage to the underworld. While it is unclear whether these individuals were Jewish, Christian, or pagan, the lamellae demonstrate that they were associated with groups that entertained lively eschatological hopes.

All told, this new edition is a most welcome and timely expansion of the first edition. Given the rate of new archaeological discoveries, and the proliferation of research in the area, such a judicious and up-to-date resource is very much needed. This second edition will fill that gap, and prove to be every bit as influential and valuable as the first edition.


1. In this appendix, he briefly takes issue with Radcliffe Edmond’s skepticism toward early Orphic mythology (193), and Renate Schlesier’s unwillingness to associate the gold tablets with Orpheus (193-94).

2. There is a discrepancy in the English transcription of their tablets, numbers 1 and 3. The same word is transcribed as “Eugenos” in no. 1 and “Eugene” in no. 3.