Yannis Tzifopoulos, 'Paradise' Earned: The Bacchic-Orphic Gold Lamellae of Crete
2: Commentary on Epistomia nos. 1–12
3: The Cretan Epistomia in Context
4: The Cretan Contexts
Afterword. Old Habits Die Hard or New Customs Follow Old Paths?
The Greeks who on the brink of death took with them to the grave a small gold incised lamella died content, feeling assured that special treatment awaited them in the Underworld. Such a statement is, of course, only a hypothesis, as there is no way to ascertain what the deceased themselves thought, or how content they were. This much, however, the texts on the lamellae clearly indicate. The individuals buried with the incised lamellae died with the belief that they ‘earned’ what we would call, for all intents and purposes, ‘paradise,’ the Persian word first used by Xenophon to refer to an “enclosed park, or pleasure-ground, always in reference to the parks of Persian kings and nobles.” Only in late antiquity did the word acquire the meaning garden of Eden, Paradise, the abode of the blessed, eventually becoming identical with the ancient Islands of the Blessed.  The literally golden letters on the small lamellae were meant to ensure an equally golden afterlife.
The incised gold epistomia from Sfakaki, Crete, nos. 8 and 9 below, are the stimulus of the present study. Together with the previously published epistomia, nos. 1–7 below, and the three unincised ones, nos. 10–12 below, they comprise a distinct group representing the Cretan contribution to the small corpus of incised lamellae and epistomia, found in Italy, the Peloponnese, Thessaly, and Macedonia. Since the middle of the 1970s, the publication of engraved lamellae has been steadily growing, and the number of studies treating them has likewise increased. Thus the edition of the new epistomia from Sfakaki necessitated the simultaneous presentation of all Cretan lamellae, so that the new artifacts and texts might be presented within a greater context.
The incised lamellae and epistomia, however, have multiple contexts. First, they are grave-goods, and attention should be paid accordingly to their Cretan and Panhellenic archaeological contexts. Secondly, because they are also texts written in verse or rhythmic prose, their poetics, Cretan and Panhellenic, warrant discussion. Finally, their content presupposes performance of one or more rituals (Cretan and/or Panhellenic), which also deserve examination. These three distinctive contexts are all appropriate for the incised lamellae, a fact that raises rather than solves problems. Although many of these issues will become evident in the following chapters, a brief outline of the interpretative problems and the guidelines followed should be spelled out from the start.
If the archaeological and epigraphical context posits no great difficulty, the contexts of poetics and ritual are another matter. The texts on the lamellae and epistomia belong to the (sub)literary category of religious texts, but this is an all-encompassing category.  The texts of nos. 1–9 and nos. 13–25 below, as well as the unincised epistomia nos. 10-12, are all in different ways religious ‘texts’ and discourses on the afterlife: the Bacchic-Orphic hexametric and rhythmic texts, the unincised gold epistomia, the personal names of initiates, a hymn, an epigram, and the incised or painted symbola on clay fragments.  Already within this group a noteworthy difficulty arises, namely the yoking together of different genres with different sets of compositional techniques, structures, and aims. As Don Fowler has shown admirably in relation to Lucretius’ ‘didactic’ poem: If the didactic nature of the texts on the lamellae is self-evident, the didactic genre is not their place. The poetics of these texts are not bound by genres.
[G]enres are unstable and leaky entities, … generic analysis … has to take its place within wider systems of social construction … Didactic poetry [aside from its primary teacher-to-student aspect] has … structural metaphors and implicit myths … [which] are secondary elements of the genre … The didactic journey through the text leads to other genres—above all epic—and to our configurations of travel in the ancient world. … If all didactic arguably has a plot of enlightenment, the meaning of “enlightenment” nevertheless changes in history (my emphasis).
In investigating “wider systems of social construction,” Dimitrios Yatromanolakis and Panagiotis Roilos have put forward a useful interpretative tool, which they have dubbed ritual poetics. Ritual poetics emphasizes performance and its context, as well as poetics’ discursivity, “the ‘text’/discourse as situated within a nexus of what we would call textural interactions with other discourses.”  Any given Greek linguistic product, Greek being a term “principally employed … as an overarching linguistic category,”  may in different historical and cultural moments appropriate, transform, interact with other current or traditional discourses, or even, in this interaction, create ‘new’ ones:Although ritual poetics runs the danger of over-simplifying and strives to be all-encompassing, it nevertheless features some distinct advantages.  The emphasis on the cultural and sociopolitical discourses, and on the dynamic potential of ritual patterns, presents a hermeneutic tool well suited for the incised lamellae and epistomia, especially the small Cretan corpus. The similarities and divergences displayed in the Cretan texts may have been due to different influences and/or concerns, as regards the discourse on afterlife and the practical matters of the ever-re-enacted ritual.
Instead of subscribing either to the detrimentally misleading dogma of linear diachronic continuities or to the equally monolithic and politically-charged dogma of absolute discontinuities, our approach [i.e., ritual poetics] offers transhistorical, transcultural perspectives on the embeddedness of ritual patterns in broader cultural and sociopolitical discourses in different traditions of the Greek-speaking world. This exploratory enterprise puts emphasis on discontinuities and transformations across chronological and discursive boundaries. The diversity and volume of written records regarding ritual activities, whether religious or secular, actual or reinscribed in other cultural discourses, is exceptionally rich in the Greek language. The Greek case, therefore, with its abundant material full of diverse continuities and discontinuities and their, more often than not, ideologically-informed reworkings throughout a period of around three millennia offers an admittedly challenging but fertile ground for comparative explorations and debates.
The cultural discourses on afterlife have been the focus of Lars Albinus’ (2000) study. He has delineated a convincing picture of two competing discourses on afterlife in Greek literature from the archaic period onwards, the ‘Homeric’ and the ‘Orphic’. Both discourses based their promises on mnemosyne and its intrinsic nature: the Homeric, inspired by the Muse, revitalizes the dead and the past through poetry and offers the eternal kleos of song;  the Orphic, being the Muse incarnate, preaches the continuity from mortal life to immortal death, the beginning of a new existence after death. Of necessity, Albinus’ approach must put aside any differences within each discourse and emphasize the similarities in order to harmonize each discourse. But neither all persons initiated in mystery cults looking for reward after death were required to carry an incised lamella or epistomion; nor is there a unanimous voice in the Homeric discourse.  The ‘Homeric’ and ‘Bacchic-Orphic’ discourses on afterlife dominated and competed from the archaic period onwards,  but within each discourse divergences did exist, even if these did not weaken the overall premises of each discourse.
Rather than concentrating on similarities, Radcliffe Edmonds has focused on the divergences in the narratives of the lamellae’s texts, and has argued cogently that the Underworld journey, depicted in the texts on the lamellae, is a mythic narrative. Instead of breaking it up into stages of an assumed ritual, he analyzes the narrative according to a tripartite nexus of obstacle-solution-result: the obstacle faced by the deceased, the solution provided by the lamella, and the result that the deceased hopes to obtain. Each time, the authors, although they employ traditional mythic elements for the obstacle, solution and result, reformulate these mythic elements, a process that reveals “the different conceptions about the afterlife, the different agendas and eschatological hopes.”  Edmonds’ approach offers new insights into the study of these texts and presents a strong case for their traditional mythic narrative, constantly changed and rearticulated with omissions and additions which underscore the different, perhaps personal approaches of the deceased towards death and the afterlife.
The mythic narrative and the Orphic discourse of the texts on the lamellae betray a constant interaction at the level of poetics. The texts also disclose a similar interaction at the level of ritual. Christoph Riedweg has shown convincingly how the different versions of the texts, in whatever way one chooses to classify them, may fit together in a religious discourse on the afterlife.  Employing the tools of narratology, Riedweg matches context and content, presenting a reconstruction of a hieros logos in six stages, which comprise all the texts. This reconstruction of some of the legomena and the presumed dromena of a ritual undoubtedly involved a hieros logos, from which may have derived the synthemata and symbola, the ‘strange’ expressions, of the texts, but as Albert Henrichs has demonstrated, the texts themselves may not have been a hieros logos proper: hierologein was a secret logos which explained the why and the how of words and actions.  The ritual context for the performance of the legomena and dromena has been postulated as an initiation into a mystery cult, or as a rite during the final stage of the funeral over the grave. But as with genres and poetics, rituals are also “unstable and leaky entities,” and have their own dynamics. The simple fact that a ritual was constantly re-enacted for centuries and performed in different places argues against a unified model of the same ritual. As Angelos Chaniotis has aptly put it, “one cannot celebrate the same festival twice,” especially when performers and receptors of festivals and rituals change constantly from century to century.  The owners of all the lamellae were initiates in a similar ritual, but it is rather unlikely that this ritual was re-enacted in an identical way from the fourth century BCE to the second century CE in all the places where a lamella or epistomion has been discovered: in Italy, Thourioi, Rome, Hipponion, Poseidonia, Petelia, and West Sicily; in Crete, Eleutherna and Sfakaki; in the Peloponnese, Elis and Aigeion; in Thessaly, Pharsalos, Pelinna, Pherai; and in Macedonia, Dion, Methone, Pydna, Aigai (Vergina), Agios Athanassios, Pella, Amphipolis, Kilkis.
In the case of the texts incised on the lamellae and epistomia, poetics, ritual, and the archaeological contexts go hand in hand, one informing or complicating the others. Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston (2007), in their attempt to present a coherent and sensible whole, articulate with good judgment these disparate and at times conflicting contexts: the myth of Dionysos and Orpheus, their poetics, eschatological discourses, Bacchic mystery cults, sacred texts, gold tablets. Along their lines, some of these issues will be addressed in what follows, and answers will be attempted, but definitive conclusions about the texts on the lamellae are yet to come. The nature of the evidence is such that a new find may overturn completely what at present we think we know for certain, or even what we assume is reasonable.
Chapter 1, the epigraphical edition, is divided into two sections. In the first, all the epistomia from Eleutherna and Sfakaki, Crete are (re)edited: nos. 1–9 comprise the incised and nos. 10–12 the unincised epistomia. In the second section, texts, related to the lamellae and epistomia and discussed in subsequent chapters, are (re)edited: nos. 13–15 comprise the two incised coins and the epistomion from Pieria in Macedonia, hitherto published in preliminary reports; nos. 16–17 the Hymn from the Diktaian Sanctuary in Palaikastro, and the epigram of Magna Mater from Phaistos respectively; nos. 18–23, and nos. 24–25 incised or painted clay epistomia found in Byzantine and modern Greek graves respectively. These texts, either because of usage or because of their content, present cases analogous to the gold lamellae. All translations of these (and all other ancient) texts are my own, unless noted otherwise.
Chapter 2 offers an extensive commentary on the epistomia from Crete, which also touches upon issues pertinent to the other incised lamellae. It comprises sections on the topography of Cretan epistomia, their lettering and engraving, dialect and orthography, meter, chronology, and finally on the material, shape and burial context, and usage of all the lamellae and epistomia.
In Chapter 3 the Cretan lamellae are placed within the small corpus of all lamellae published so far. The chapter is divided into three sections. First, an attempt is made at clarifying the nature of these incised objects, and a new classification is proposed for all lamellae and epistomia, which modifies the one suggested by Günther Zuntz (1971) and according to which all lamellae and epistomia are referred to throughout by letter group and number (Tables 1–2). In the second section, the Cretan texts are analyzed in relation to the corpus of texts which connote a certain ritual and imply a secret hieros logos. Finally, the texts’ composition and content are discussed in comparison to rhapsodic performances, which may have influenced those who transmitted the texts of the lamellae. Two distinct discourses on death and the afterlife appear from the archaic period onwards: one of them, promoted by epic poetry and later by tragedy, pronounces kleos as the only way to heroization and immortalization, thereby making genre the sole determinant of one’s chances of gaining access to the Isles of the Blessed; the other proffers an alternative path to the Isles, via initiation into a mystery cult. If such initiations are sometimes implied in epic and dramatic poetry, it is only so they can be rejected or problematized, as Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood (2003) suggested. Oracles, another type of religious text, share a unique relationship with both types of discourses: although they adhere to the Homeric and Hesiodic outlooks on the afterlife, they nevertheless betray affinities with the texts on the lamellae in terms of structure, composition, and objective; in a sense, the texts on the lamellae pronounce a kind of “prophecy come true” on afterlife.
Chapter 4 focuses on Crete and its literary, archaeological, and epigraphical contexts. It is argued that in the literary works of non-Cretans from the archaic period onwards, the subject Crete and the Cretans becomes a literary topos, as it were, signifying a certain behavior, activity, or belief. This phenomenon implies that although the Homeric and Orphic discourses on afterlife were most prevalent, they were not the only ones. Indeed, the Cretan discourse was also significant, especially in matters of poetics and ritual. Regardless of whether the other discourses ended up rejecting, modifying, or integrating the Cretan topos, they all had to reckon with it and seriously acknowledge it. Later in the chapter, perceptions of Crete and the Cretans in non-Cretan literary works are compared to the actual archaeological and epigraphical evidence of Crete, and in particular to the evidence around the Idaean Cave. Greek perceptions of Crete and the Cretans, that is, of Cretan poetics, rituals, and religious matters, were not just a literary topic in mainly Athenian literary texts. There is strong evidence to suggest that in Crete, and especially around the Idaean Cave, to the south at Phaistos and to the north at Eleutherna (where we find the incised epistomia), poetics, rituals, and religious matters enjoyed a continuous development and exercised a lasting impact. The emerging context is fitting for, and may explain, not only the presence of the deceased buried with epistomia (incised or not), but also the deviant choices and ideologies in these texts, because of the various but similar in concept mystery cults and rituals in Phaistos, the Idaean Cave, and Eleutherna.
Instead of an epilogue, the concluding part presents a coda: further developments in the life of the burial custom of lamellae during the Byzantine and the modern Greek periods. The thin gold incised lamellae become clay fragments incised or painted with Christian symbols. Drawing parallels between the ancient and modern customs illuminates the discussion of the incised lamellae in two ways: first, such parallels present a necessary interpretative caveat regarding the issues of continuities and discontinuities, similarities and differences, and local and Panhellenic distinctions; more importantly, however, they forcefully evince the everlasting and persistent human quest to ‘earn Paradise.’
Finally, an appendix features two Tables cataloguing all forty-four lamellae and epistomia published thus far. Table 1 modifies Zuntz’s classification (1971), arranging the texts of the lamellae and epistomia into groups A through G according to their content. Information is provided concerning provenance, date, shape, accompanying coin(s), the deceased’s gender, the manner of burial, and other goods recovered from the graves. In Table 2, the lamellae and epistomia and their texts are presented according to different criteria in three groups: 1) the twenty-three lamellae and epistomia, of which nineteen are engraved with brief texts (eight of them leaves, two coins, and a pseudo-coin?), and four epistomia with no texts; 2) the twenty-one lamellae and epistomia engraved with long texts (one of them two leaves); 3) all forty-four lamellae and epistomia according to their provenance: ten from Italy, twelve from Crete, five from the Peloponnese, five from Thessaly, and twelve from Macedonia.
[ back ] 1. Xenophon Anabasis 1.2.7, 9; 1.4.10, 14, 17; Cyropaedia 1.3.14; 1.4.5, 11; 8.1.38; 8.6.12; Hellenika 4.1.15, 33; Oeconomicus 4.13-14, 21; LSJ, s.v.; and Chantraine 1980:857.
[ back ] 2. Roland Baumgarten (1998), under the telling title heiliges Wort, heilige Schrift, and hieroi logoi, has presented an important contribution to the study of religious texts, such as oracles, ‘orphic’ literature, hieroi logoi in mystery cults, the two hieroi logoi supposedly by Pythagoras, and ‘egyptianizing’ sacred writings. This is a disparate miscellany, but it underscores the variety in form and objectives of what we might call religious texts. As Robert Parker (2000b) and Albert Henrichs (2003a and 2003b) have argued, the terms hieros logos, hiera anagraphe, hieros chresmos, sacred writ, and the like are not identical, just as the theogonies, hymns, cult regulations, oracles, and a number of other texts are different entities. They all, however, comprise what we would call a corpus of religious texts.
[ back ] 3. On the variety of religious documents the place to start is Henrichs 2003b.
[ back ] 4. Don Fowler 2000:218–219; for epic as an especially ‘leaky genre,’ see Martin 2005b; in relation to Poseidippos’ epigrams Obbink (2005) entertains the idea of subliterary or occasional texts, i.e., texts composed for an occasion and not necessarily as part of a canon whose primary criterion is literariness; and 107n42.
[ back ] 5. Yatromanolakis and Roilos 2003:13 and 2004:5.
[ back ] 6. Yatromanolakis and Roilos 2003:11–12 and 11–41; 2004:3–4 and 3–34.
[ back ] 7. Yatromanolakis and Roilos (2004) provide an array of approaches from archaic to modern Greece with fruitful results on “ritual textures and textures of sociocultural interaction as interwoven nexuses of ever-reinvented negotiations of power capitals and sēmansis” (2004:34). For a similar example see the sections “In Search of a Context” and “Afterword.”
[ back ] 8. For the mnemonic techniques, applicable to both sets of texts, see Minchin 2001.
[ back ] 9. Ledbetter 2003 presents an eloquent discussion of the divergent poetics within the Homeric discourse.
[ back ] 10. Homeric and Orphic should be understood throughout as linguistic expedients (Calame forthcoming); and 120n80.
[ back ] 11. Edmonds 2004:35–36 (the quotation from 36).
[ back ] 12. Riedweg 1998 and 2002.
[ back ] 13. Henrichs (2003a) allows for only one, PGurob, as a “more likely candidate for the designation hieros logos” (233n86 with previous bibliography), which may have survived from antiquity. He entertains as a second possibility the Orphic text whose commentary survives in PDerveni, provided this lost Orphic text is designated in the PDerveni commentary as a hieros logos or its author’s activity as hierologein. Such is the case by the verb ἱερολογεῖσθαι restored in PDerveni column VII line 7 (and possibly in column VII line 2), for which see Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou 2006:74–75, 171–173.
[ back ] 14. Chaniotis 2002:43 (further cases in Chaniotis 2005b and 2005c); and also Frankfurter 2002, and Humphreys 2004.