Chapter 6. How to Learn about Souls: The Derveni Papyrus and Democritus

Walter Burkert
University of Zurich
The derveni papyrus has been called the most important discovery for Greek philology in the twentieth century: a burned papyrus scroll from the fourth century BC, one-third of which has been preserved in a carbonized state. The discovery was made nearly fifty years ago, and I myself have been working on this fascinating text for forty-five years. Yet it has been only a few years since a real edition appeared (2006)—and not in Thessaloniki, where the papyrus is kept, but in Italy, thanks to the diplomacy of Maria Serena Funghi.
It was clear from the first fragmentary publication of 1964 (or rather 1965) that this is mainly a commentary on the theogony of Orpheus, based on the philosophy of Anaxagoras and Diogenes of Apollonia—in other words, it is Presocratic. The name of Heraclitus turned up later (col. IV 5). My first study appeared in 1968. I stated, and I think this still holds true, that the “Presocratic” author was writing in about 400 BC and dealing with a sixth-century text. The quotations from the Orphic theogony have laid a new foundation for Orphic studies (comprising fr. 2–18 in Bernabé’s Orphicorum fragmenta [2004]). My interpretation of this strange yet highly interesting text was published in 2006.
The quotations from the theogony start in column VII. Fragments of the first six columns have successively accumulated, but, because they form the outside of the scroll, they are badly damaged and desperately lacunose. No wonder modern judgments as to this part of the text are widely, or wildly, divergent. Suggestive catchwords to be read are Erinyes (cols. I, II, III), Hadou deiná (“terrors of the Underworld,” col. V), daimones (cols. III, VI), oracles (col. V), mystai (col. VI)—but what does the author say about these? Is he preaching, is he criticizing, is he just reporting? Is he an Orphic initiation priest or even a magos himself, is he an “Anaxagorean,” a “Presocratic” rationalist, is he kind of a historian? Column IV quotes Heraclitus by name in two famous fragments which are now linked together (B 12; B 94); but what is the point?
Let me first sketch the author’s position on the basis of the better-preserved, later columns. I find the author has a concept of “reality,” prágmata (col. XIII 5), eónta, which can be adequately transmitted by speech: an ónoma can be “adequate,” prospherés, or even prospheréstaton (col. XVIII 8). This “reality” of our world is described in the terms of Anaxagoras/Diogenes/Leucippus: the world of reality always was there; there is no real génesis; but things were mixed, in fine particles (leptomerés), dominated by air, which can also be called “god” or “Zeus,” or “Intelligence” (Noûs); thus there has evolved the structure of our world, and corresponding “names,” in accordance with the changing interrelations of real things (eónta). The author is quite sure as to his own “knowledge” about reality, and he is looking down at those “many” people who do not know, who misunderstand, who suffer from amathía; these people do not know even what they are practicing themselves (col. XX), and they do not know the full meaning of their own words (col. XVIII 5). The author will help his reader to “learn” and “recognize” (manthánein, ginóskein).
But what about those catchwords hinting at “underworld,” “mysteries,” and “mágoi” in the earlier columns? I start from column V, where I find at least a few consecutive sentences with clear meaning:
... they disbelieve, not recognizing dreams nor the single instances of other realities by which examples they might believe. For overcome by gluttonness and other pleasure, they do not learn or believe. Disbelief and ignorance are the same thing. For if they do not learn or recognize, it is impossible that they should believe, even when seeing…
“Disbelief” recurs in the following line, and “it appears” is what is left from the last.
I presume the author is speaking here in his own name. His insistence is on “learning,” “knowledge,” and “belief,” in contrast to “ignorance” and “disbelief” (amathíe, apistíe). People—“normal”—people, fail to acquire knowledge on account of disbelief: the fault is theirs, motivated by an unruly life. In contrast to this, there is a chance for knowledge, through dreams, and by other “examples” or “single facts” (paradeígmata). In contrast to this, people may use oracles. This has been mentioned before: people go there to ask, and to ask again, about the “terrors of Hades.” These people are disregarding the real sources of “belief.”
It is helpful to realize that the author is applying, with slight variation, a sentence of Heraclitus (B 86) about “the Divine” (τὸ θεῖον): “on account of disbelief it escapes so that it is not recognized,” ἀπιστίηι διαφυγγάνει μὴ γιγνώσκεσθαι. These are nearly the same words, for the same effect: through ἀπιστίη men block their own chances of knowledge; they should just look instead, and pay attention. We may recall the sentence of Heraclitus B 1, the invective against normal people who “prove to be inexperienced while they do experience” reality as Heraclitus is going to describe it. Evidently, for Heraclitus “the Divine” is there, perhaps everywhere; everything is full of gods, according to the saying of Thales (Α 22) which Heraclitus quotes in another place (A 9). The Heraclitus parallel suggests a similar understanding even for our author: there are things to be seen and to be learned which escape many people on account of disbelief.
“Disbelief” ἀπιστία also makes its appearance in a famous section of Plato’s Gorgias (493a–d), [1] an allegorical interpretation of an underworld myth, probably Orphic. Plato, or Socrates, refers to somebody else who “has spoken” to Socrates; the passage describes pouring water from sieves into a leaky vessel (pithos), as certain souls are said to do in the underworld; this recalls, the explanation goes, the futile exertions of a “leaky” soul that, dominated by pleasures, cannot “keep” and retain knowledge, on account of ἀπιστία and forgetfulness, λήθη. This allegorizer changes the mythical Beyond into an image of reality. The word apistia has been found odd here (Dodds), but seems to recall Heraclitus B 86 once more, and is now supported by the Derveni text.
Heraclitus, the Derveni text, and the Plato passage form a closely connected group in their treatment of “nonbelieving” and “knowledge.” I do not claim that Plato is quoting the Derveni book, but the warning against pleasure makes a strong link. Unfortunately, in the Derveni text what could or should be learned in contrast to disbelief has disappeared in the following lacuna. It should be some part of reality, not immediately obvious but attainable through observation, including dreams, and also by other “examples.” It is “the divine” in Heraclitus, and “the soul” in Plato. Remembering those catchwords mentioned above, we conclude that it is about souls even in the Derveni text.
The following column (VI) deals with the rites and teachings of mágoi. It leaves us at a loss as to whether these mágoi are priests of the Medes and Persians, as in Herodotus, or even Zoroastrians, or else mages hellénisées, as treated by Cumont, or even—as has been suggested by Betegh—a group of the author himself and his associates. This text concerns rituals and their explanation concerning “souls.” The author mentions “prayer and sacrifices” and states: “The incantation of the magoi can make daimones who stand in the way to change place; daimones are in the way...”; the following words indicate some correlation between daimones and souls; unfortunately the lacuna of eight letters can be filled by different supplements.
Here the enlightening parallel comes from the account of Diogenes Laertios (1.6) on the mágoi: “Mágoi are concerned with the cult of gods (and not with magic), with sacrifices and prayers, claiming that they alone are perceived” by the gods. This is the very privilege on which the Derveni text expounds in more detail: mágoi have the power to clear the way toward the gods of some blockade wrought by daimones. This shows that the mágoi of the Derveni text belong in Greek discussions, following Herodotus; the chapter of Diogenes Laertios probably goes back to Aristotle’s Peri philosophias and/or to the book Magikos ascribed to Aristotle or even to Antisthenes (Aristotle fr. 32–36 Rose). Our author goes on: “Innumerable cakes with many knobs [poluomphaloi] they—the mágoi—sacrifice, because the souls too are innumerable” (VI 7f.). For confirmation, the author adds: “Initiates [mystai] make a preliminary sacrifice to the Eumenides in the same sense as the mágoi; for the Eumenides are souls” (VI 8f.). Note that these are no longer the mágoi, but other Greek sacrificers compared to, and thus distinguished from, the mágoi. Our author states that rituals of mágoi and rituals of Greek mystai follow the same reason: they deal with a plurality of souls. We have no other testimony of such a ritual naming Eumenides, in the context of Greek mysteries; the closest seems to be the cathartic ritual performed in the grove of the Eumenides in Sophocles, Oedipus at Kolonos (465–492). At any rate, the rituals described and explained imply a doctrine, imply knowledge about “innumerable souls”: innumerable souls, between human prayer and gods—this is taken as unquestioned reality. It seems to have the full approval of the author.
It is here that our own “disbelief” will start: Shall we “believe” in the reality, nay, activity, of daimones and “innumerable souls” whom the mágoi handle? For the sake of this, should we even believe in dreams? Doesn’t this make the author a sectarian Orphic, or a mágos himself, rather than a Presocratic philosopher?
It might be the case that we are victims of our own tradition. The great movement of “enlightenment” more than two hundred years ago has cured us of beliefs in demons, spirits, or specters. Science is to replace superstition. We take the Presocratics to have been activists of Greek enlightenment, elaborating the concept of “nature,” physis. Hence we see a fundamental divide between the “Presocratic” world picture which we read in the main part of our book, the commentary on Orpheus, based on Parmenides and Anaxagoras, and, on the other hand, the religious ritual of mágoi and mysteries with their “belief” about souls and warnings against ἀπιστίη.
Yet I now propose to turn to Democritus, the father of atomism, hence apparently the most modern of all Presocratics. It is just Democritus who developed strange theories about souls and specters. Democritus taught that “in the air there is a great number of those things which he calls mind and soul” (noûs, psyché: A 106 = Aristotle On the Soul 472a6); with every breath, he said, they enter the body of the living being, and they prevent the soul inside from flying out. So there is continuous interaction of an individual life-soul with the air around, which is full of souls (cf. Heraclitus A 6 = Sextus Empiricus, Adversus mathematicos 7.129). We are of course reminded of Thales (A 22), “everything is full of gods,” changed to “everything is full of souls” (Pythagoreans: Diogenes Laertios 8.32 = VS 58B1a).
Diogenes of Apollonia seems to be relevant here. For him Air, thinking and divine, is also to be found in every single being; this air is “soul and thinking” for the individuum; so every living being is a “particle of god” (VS II 56.3). The Derveni author, with his equation of Air, Zeus, and Noûs, is quite close to Diogenes. They could even be identical; Diogenes wrote more than one book.
More special is the theory of Democritus that phantoms, eidola, are produced constantly; they spontaneously separate themselves from existing things, they move around, they make us see things, but also have certain effects beyond what enters the eye. Eidola is a word for the souls of the dead in Homer; in pictures these eidola appear as tiny winged humans; but for Democritus eidola are not confined to Hades: they are present everywhere, in all kinds of shapes.
Democritus declared that such eidola “dive into the bodies through the pores, that they come up and produce appearances in sleep” (A 77); they thus become visible, or audible, they even indicate future events (B 166). So here we have the activities of dream, and at the same time the hypothesis of the reality of the objects which appear in dream. Note there is no place for fantasy in the atomistic system; even visions and spirits do not come from nothing, they must somehow be the effect of eonta. It is also possible, Democritus says, that humans, full of envy, send out eidola tinged with evil, who then will affect those who have become the object of envy, and “they will procure trouble and damage for both body and mind” (A 77). He was praying, Democritus said, “to meet with well-sorted [eúloncha] eidola” (B 166).
Democritus would stay at tombs for the night, we are told (A 1 = Antisthenes in Diogenes Laertius 9.38), to get knowledge through experience, to “test fantasies.” This would correspond to “examples by which you could believe” about souls, besides dreams, as our Derveni text puts it.
This is “unlimited superstition,” Plutarch cries out (Aemillius Paulus 1.4; not in Diels-Kranz); Plutarch was one of the last who still read Democritus. And moderns will agree: a world of ghosts right in atomism? Democritus apparently starts from traditional tales and certain experiences, which he does not dismiss as nonsense but provisionally accepts, trying to find an aitologia. This includes visions, even predictions and prophesies in dreams, and quasi-magical harm, e.g. by envy.
Two titles among the works of Democritus stand out in this perspective: On Eidola or on Providence, Περὶ εἰδώλων ἢ περὶ προνοίης (B 10a), and On What Is in Hades, Περὶ τῶν ἐν Ἅιδου (B  0c). This book even was famous, as it enters the tales of Democritus among the Abderites (Athenaeus 168B = VS II 130.13). We may speculate that this was transferring the “terrors of Hades” into realities of atoms that act as “souls” in our world.
It may come as a surprise, but we might seriously consider the possibility that the Derveni text is just Democritus’ book Περὶ τῶν ἐν Ἅιδου. There is even a scrap of proof for the philologist: right at the end of the text preserved in col. XXVI 14, we read ἐν τῆι συγ..., and this hardly allows another supplement but ἐν τῆι συγγονῆι—we need a female noun beginning with γ κ χ—and behold, this uncommon noun is attested for Democritus: συγγονή· σύστασις. Δημόκριτος (B 137; Hesychius). The meaning σύστασις would apparently fit the context in column XXVI. Add that one sentence of the Derveni text is practically identical with a sentence of Democritus—the universe is being called “Zeus” (XIX 2 = Democritus B 30); and there is a sizable group of testimonies about Democritus and mágoi (Diogenes Laertius 9.34 = A 16). Is this the solution to the riddle of the Derveni text?
The answer will be a resounding “no.” The world picture as developed by the Derveni author in the commentary, a world established by a ruling god who is “Intelligence,” Noûs— “The thinking of Zeus has settled what is, what was, what will be” (col. XIX 6)—this is the very picture which Democritus is explicitly fighting; he made fun of the Noûs of Anaxagoras (Diogenes. Laertius 9.35). Our author is an Anaxagorean, and he declares the identity or mixture of Zeus and Noûs (col. XXVI 1). Democritus tried to do without Noûs, relying on a principle of self-organization: see the pebbles at the shore (A 128)—without an intelligent designer.
We shall go on to deal with an anonymous author, somehow between Diogenes and Democritus. The very catalogue of Democritus’ writings, or of Antisthenes’ writings, and the fairly contemporary collection of Hippocratic writings show what a hubbub of books was already around by that time, about and after 400 BC. Still the example of Democritus is not irrelevant. It shows the possibility of integrating traditional beliefs and practices of religion into the realities of physis. Our author is not a missionary of Orphism, whatever that may be, nor a priest of some sect, nor a dealer in underworld ritual, nor a practicing Iranian mágos. He is writing on tà eónta, the true face of reality, in the wake of Anaxagoras and Diogenes and somehow parallel to Democritus. He is a bit naïve, proud of his own knowledge, and far from Socratic irony, but still an interesting writer among those earlier, pre-Platonic thinkers of Greece.

Editions and Translations

[Anonymous]. 1982. “Der Orphische Papyrus von Derveni.” Zeitschrift für Papyro-logie und Epigraphik 47:1–12.
Bernabé, A. 2007. “Papyrus Derveni.” In Musaeus · Linus · Epimenides · Papyrus Derveni · Indices, 169–269. Poetae epici Graeci: Testimonia et fragmenta, part II, fasc. 3. Berlin.
Betegh, G. 2004. The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology, and Interpretation. Cambridge.
Burkert, W. 2006. “Orpheus und die Vorsokratiker.” Antike und Abendland 14 (1968): 93–114 [= Burkert, Kleine Schriften III:62–68, Göttingen].
———. 2006. “Die altorphische Theogonie nach dem Papyrus von Derveni.” In Kleine Schriften III:95–111.
Janko, R. 2002. “The Derveni Papyrus: An Interim Text.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 141:1–62.
Jourdan, F. 2003. Le Papyrus de Derveni: Traduit et présenté. Paris.
Kapsomenos, S. G. 1964–1965. “Ὁ ’Ορφικὸς Πάπυρος τῆς Θεσσαλονίκης.” Archaiologikon Deltion 19:17–25.
Th. Kouremenos, G. M. Parássoglou, and K. Tsantsanoglou, eds. 2006. The Derveni Papyrus, Edited with Introduction and Commentary. Florence.

Readings Different from Those of Kouremenos-Parássoglou-Tsantsanoglou and Bernabé

V 4: παρίμεν, not πάριμεν (πάρεστιν/ἔθος] αὐτοῖς παρίμεν). There is no “we” in the Derveni text.
V 8: ὑπὸ τ[ῆς γαστρι]μαργίης (corresponding to “other pleasure”).

The True Story of the Anonymous Edition

The first announcement of the discovery of the papyrus appeared in Gnomon 35 (1963): 222–223, by S. G. Kapsomenos, already bearing the subtitle “Ein Kom-mentar zur Orphischen Theogonie.”
Then Kapsomenos published seven columns in Deltion 19 (1964): 23–25, which appeared de facto in 1965. I read it at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC. I had just finished my book on Pythagoreans, in which the distinction between “Presocratic” and post-Platonic texts plays a major role. Martin West had already finished major parts of his book on Orphism; he had shown it to me in 1965. So we both were highly interested in the new text.
I published an analysis of the text, “Orpheus und die Vorsokratiker,” in Antike und Abendland 14 (1968); I used it also as a test lecture in Zurich in 1968.
I got a photo of a new column from E. G. Turner in London in 1969; this resulted in a paper, “La genèse des choses et des mots,” in Les Études Philosophiques 4 (1970).
Much more important was that Martin West went to Thessaloniki in the autumn of 1972, and he succeeded in copying, in eleven hours of intense work, what was on exhibition there in the museum. Martin communicated his texts with me. Thus we had four more columns and, in addition, ten smaller pieces. In combination with a photo in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists I could put together another column. In this form I discussed the papyrus in a seminar at UC Berkeley, in 1977. Decisive progress came in the next year, when Kapsomenos died and his successor, Kyriakos Tsantsanoglou, sent his text to E.  G. Turner in London, whence it got to Martin West, and from him to me. An improved and more complete text was brought by George Parássoglou, colleague of Tsantsanoglou, to Turner in 1980. Turner did not prevent this piece from getting photocopied and hence distributed among colleagues and friends; I got my copy from Martin West once more. It was then that I found this situation impossible: Such an important discovery limited to private copying? I talked to Reinhold Merkelbach, editor of Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, and Merkelbach decided to print the text even without authorization from Thessaloniki. Thus the main text has been available since 1982. Turner felt obliged to protest, in Gnomon 1982; he knew of course that the text had come from his desk. He declared that the real publication was about to appear. This process was still to last twenty-four years. I think scholarship must be grateful to Merkelbach for his courage.
There was a congress in Princeton, in 1993 (published in 1997); two commentaries appeared, by Fabienne Jourdain in French and by Gábor Betegh in English, before finally, in Florence in 2006, the real edition came out, with Theokritos Kouremenos joining Parássoglou and Tsantsanoglou. The text is now also to be found in the third volume of Bernabé’s Orphicorum fragmenta (2007).


[ back ] 1. See E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, 1951:209n5.