BMCR 2007.10.15: Graf/Johnston: Ritual Texts for the Afterlife
- Fritz Graf, Sarah Iles Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife:
Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. London/New York: Routledge,
2007. Pp. x, 246. ISBN 978-0-415-41551-4. L18.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Franco Ferrari, Universita\ dell'Aquila - I
Word count: 3254 words
To read a print-formatted version of this review, see
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. Bernabe/ and A.J.
Jime/nez San Cristo/bal (in Spanish) and G. Pugliese Carratelli (in
Italian), both published in 2001,[] and after Bernabe/'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
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
eschatology behind the tablets (with many detailed interpretations of
the texts), and a chapter by G. on the Dionysiac mystery cults.
there is a chapter by them both on Orpheus and Orphic poetry.
A generous range of subject-matter is covered, the argument is
and thorough, the authors' scholarship enables them to tackle a
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
explaining puzzling sentences. G. is the author of Eleusis und die
orphische Dichtung Athens (1974) and Nordionische Kulte (1985), and
of Restless Dead. Encounters between the Living and the Dead in
Greece (1999); both have absorbed and continued the work of their
"teacher and friend" Walter Burkert, to whom the book is dedicated
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 Bernabe/'s edition but
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 (Epigene^s), and no. *39, a fragment of
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
with the mystery tablets is phylakes on line 4). However, the two
hexameters of no. 28, a leaf found 1904 in clandestine excavations
tomb near the Neolithic settlement at the Magoula Mati (Thessaly),
firstly (and thoroughly) published by R. Parker and M. Stamatopoulou
Arch. Eph. 2004 (publ. 2007), 1-32, are very interesting both for
language and the connection between Demeter and the Mountain Mother:
pempe me pros mysto^<n> thiasous, echo^ orgia [...] / De^me^tros
Chthonias <te> tele^ kai Me^tros Orei[as. But it is a pity that at
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 echo^ 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 echo^, is echo^ orgia [semna] / De^me^tros
chthonias telesai kai Me^tros oreias ("I am able to celebrate the
rituals of Demeter chthonia and of the Mountain Mother"). In any
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
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 ge^n tele(a) hassaper
alloi ("and below the earth there are ready for you the same prizes
for the other blessed ones"), a good hexameter with an ellipse of
character wrongly altered by Pugliese Carratelli and Bernabe/. 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
(more precisely, it is Lazzarini's reading), is printed a
linguistically impossible orfe^entos (Sacco's reading). In the
apparatus G. mentions only Ebert's (correct) alteration orphne^ntos
"murky". Perhaps there is just a typographical error. In my view, at
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 Bernabe/ but not confirmed by the
kindred Petelia tablet. There after tode appears the trace of a
partially abraded (not recorded in G.'s transcription): this was not
epsilon, or an iota (Pugliese Carratelli), but rather, in my view, a
delta (d[o^ron 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 e^rion ("this mound").[] At 5.4b G. prints
but in the apparatus he refers to kerauno^i. Lastly, the reading Gas
e^mi mate^r at 18.3, accepted by G. after Bernabe/, is impossible
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 mate^r "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
Timpone Grande tablets in any other category). The reader could be
bewildered, however, to find the leaves from Hipponion (no. 1),
(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
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
as long in the Greek text, as equivalent to ou). "To die" at the end
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
forced into one clear-cut meaning: as it seems from the asyndetic
juxtaposition of this sentence to the following "You have become a
instead of a mortal", to pathe^ma could refer to the mystes'
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
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 Bernabe/[], 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.[] One readily understands her attempt to
follow the articulations of the myth by comparing them with other
and cultic contexts such as the Athenian Anthesteria. She rightly
intends, in examining a cultic aition, to go beyond so hazy a matrix
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
Dionysus into the sphere of deities who were eschatologically
(first of all his 'new' mother Persephone), to insert him as Zeus
manque/ 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
Dionysus' rebirth thanks to Rhea, Demeter or Apollo. Rhea is
as the agent of Dionysus's new life by Philodemus (On Piety, p. 16
47 Gomperz), who quotes Euphorion (fr. 53 De Cuenca), Demeter by
Sic. 3.62.8, Apollo only by Neoplatonic writers. Hence there is no
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).
in Bacchylides (fr. 42) Rhea revives Pelops after his father has
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
and to the scribal practice of abbreviation depending both on the
expense of the gold and on the fluidity of competing beliefs. She
a sound distinction between tablets which function as mnemonic
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
of the different kinds of souls engaged in underworld journeys. Even
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,[] to
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,[] to a
Pythagorean background, comparison with the other tablets cannot but
highlight the religious and cultural divergences which do not find
proper treatment in this book (it might be added that such
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
Omero ai magi. La tradizione orientale nella cultura greca).[] A
Pythagorean framework would have been very useful in tackling a
particular issue, that is why in two 'geographic' tablets, the one
Petelia (no. 2 = 476 Bernabe/) and another from Crete (no. 18 = 484a
Bernabe/), the spring to be avoided is placed at the left side of
Hades' house, not the right, as in all the other lamellae that
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
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
at risk of tautology, that "the orpheotelestes who sold the tablet
innovated purposefully, arguing to his client that his was the
knowledge" (p. 111). Surely more convincing is Battezzato's[]
explanation. He points out that in the Pythagorean pairs of
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
and that the Petelia tablet combines the spring on the left side with
the feminine aue^ (l. 8). He argues that right and left are to be
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'
initiate has become at least a junior member of the divine group"
to me ill founded. As a well attested Homeric usage indicates (cf.
4.61 = 18.366 su de pasi met' athanatoisin anasseis, 14.94, 23.471,
7.23) the clause meth'e^ro^essin anaxeis must mean "you will rule
the other heroes", not "among" them.[] The tangle of different
outlooks can be seen at an extreme on p. 120: "The tablets tell us
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
-- 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,
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
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.[] The underworld on the contrary appears to be full of
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
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
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
In the fifth chapter (pp. 137-164) G. considers with fine
methodological balance the thorny question of the relationship
text and ritual (in other words, the tablets as ritual texts or
liturgical scripts). He rightly asks about the small local
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 Guro^b papyrus, which seems
reflect the practices of a Greek-speaking cult group in Ptolemaic
Egypt. A point where one might disagree is instead his
in Zuntz's footsteps,[] 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 hodoiporo^n to feel that it is not prose,
a faultless iambo-trochaic sequence (a catalectic trochaic trimeter
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
n. 3) seems on the point of admitting the metrical nature of 26a.6 =
26b.5 oinon echeis eudaimona time^n "You have wine as your fortunate
honor", but he interprets it as "two choriambics followed by a
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
anonymous hymn which according to Plutarch was sung by the women of
Elis (Carm. pop. 871.6-7 PMG).[]
In their sixth and last chapter (pp. 165-184) G. and J. together
rehearse the main aspects of Orphic poetry and of its mythical
(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
be investigated in more depth is how and why a character like
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 Dubois[], and the translation of col. i of
P.Guro^b 1 and the edict of Ptolemy IV Philopator preserved in
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
Corcyra, who was both a poet and a priest of Dionysus.[]
Much remains to be done in order to understand both the mystery
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
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
1. See A. Bernabe/-A.J. Jime/nez San Cristo/bal, Instrucciones para
el ma/s alla/. Las laminillas o/rficas de oro, Ediciones Cla/sicas,
Madrid 2001, and G. Pugliese Carratelli, Le lamine d'oro orfiche.
Istruzioni per il viaggio oltremondano degli iniziati greci, Adelphi,
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
tode hieron "e\ sacro questo (dettato)".
3. A. Bernabe/, "Autour du mythe orphique sur Dionysos et les
Quelques notes critiques", in D. Accorinti- A. Chuvin (edd.), Des
Ge/ants a\ Dionysos. Me/langes offerts a\ F. Vian, Dell'Orso,
Alessandria 2003, 25-39.
4. See R. Seaford, "Immortality, Salvations, and the Elements",
90 (1986), 1-26 (4-9), and R. Edmonds, "Tearing Apart the Zagreus
A Few Disparaging Remarks on Orphism and Original Sin", Class. Ant.
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 Goldbla+ttchen aus Hipponion", ZPE 18 (1975),
229-236 (234-35), quoted some passages, like Aesch. fr. 341 R. and
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-
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).
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.
"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 comunita\ 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
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
he mention the papers collected in G. Pugliese Carratelli, Tra Cadmo
Orfeo. Contributi alla storia civile e religiosa dei Greci
Il Mulino, Bologna 1990.
7. More attention is paid to this issue by R.G. Edmonds in the
chapter of his recent book Myths of the Underworld Journey. Plato,
Aristophanes, and the Orphic Gold Tablets, University Press,
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-
Beck, Mu+nchen 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
Magna Graecia, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1971, 341-42.
12. Another question to be decided is whether we should accept, as
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
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
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",
112 (1996), 59-65, and M. Fantuzzi, "Mescolare il ludicro al serio:
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.
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