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BMCR 2007.10.15: Graf/Johnston: Ritual Texts for the Afterlife

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  • Brett
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 7, 2007
      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,[[1]] 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
      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 (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
      in a
      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
      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 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").[[2]] 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
      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
      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/[[3]], 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
      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,[[5]] 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,[[6]] 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).[[7]] 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[[8]]
      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'
      lamellae "the
      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.[[9]] 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.[[10]] 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,[[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 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).[[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
      (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[[13]], 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.[[14]]

      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,
      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
      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.
      (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 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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