Chapter 9. The Derveni Papyrus between the Power of Spoken Language and Written Practice: Pragmatics of Initiation in an Orpheus Poem and Its Commentary [1]

Claude Calame
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris
Translated by Nicholas Snead
For us, ever since the second quarter of the sixth century BCE, Orpheus sings. Indeed, in its depiction of the Argonauts’ voyage, the famous frieze on the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi calls attention to Orpheus’ role as a bard. Standing in the bow of the ship that carries the Greek heroes and holding what is probably a lyre in his hand, Orpheus seems to be guiding the vessel with his song. [2] The voice of the singer of Thrace is active as well in the long epic narrative poem recounting the legend of the Argonauts by the Hellenistic poet Apollonius of Rhodes. During their passage near the flowering island, the Greek heroes, like Odysseus, run the risk of being seduced by the soft, enchanting, and destructive songs (molpaí) of the Sirens, daughters of the Muse Terpsikhore. But the melody (mélos) of Orpheus’ rhythmic chant (aoidé) as he plays the phorminx {165|166} responds to the “lily-like” voices of these young women with bird bodies. And the melody of the Thracian singer ultimately triumphs over the deceptive voices of the young women. [3]

1. Incantatory Practices between Orality and Writing

In poetic tradition as in classical iconography, Orpheus is famous as much for the melodious qualities of his instrumental music as he is for the enchanting and spellbinding powers of his voice as aoidos.
In classical poetry, for example, Pindar does not hesitate in Pythian 4 to insert the “renowned” poet Orpheus in the catalogue of Greek heroes who participate in the long account of the Argonauts’ voyage. Son of Apollo or at least inspired by the god, the cithara-playing hero Orpheus, conductor of the Muses, is presented as the father and therefore the inventor of song (aoidaí); from the Homeric poems onward, this term generally denotes the song in epic diction. [4] In this manner, Orpheus assumes the role of creator and player of the phorminx (phormigktés); this role is the one Apollo himself takes on, for example, in Aristophanes, who for his part presents Orpheus as the creator of teletaí, or initiatory rites: [5] Orpheus is singer, bard, and master of initiation.
In contemporary iconography, the power of Orpheus’ voice is incarnated by the singing hero’s head, separated from the body that carried it. The singer of Thrace is in this way reduced to his pure vocality through a probable allusion to the legend in which he falls victim to the sparagmos of the maenads, who were spurred on by a Dionysus jealous of the exclusive honors Orpheus paid to Apollo. Aeschylus made this legend the tragic subject of the Bassarids. [6] Yet {166|167} along with other similar artifacts, the frieze of a red-figure vase at Cambridge stages for us the confrontation between a seated young man and a man standing with his right hand stretched out in front of him (this image appears opposite a musical scene depicting two young women). Because of the laurel branch that he is holding in his left hand, it makes sense to identify the second young man as the god Apollo or as one of the priests who serve as his mortal representatives. In the center of this musical scene, the head of Orpheus is resting on the ground: while the head is singing, the seated ephebe’s role seems to be to transcribe the words coming from the mouth of the immortalized poet onto a two-leaved tablet coated in wax. As for the god or his priest, he is guiding with his right hand the movements of the young man transcribing to the diptych. The presence of Apollo or of his representative confers an oracular quality to the voice of Orpheus, which is perhaps part of a practice of necromancy. [7] Is this an “oral dictated text,” according to the hypothesis formed by Albert Lord to describe the written transcription of poems transmitted orally under the name “Homer”? Whatever the case, the oral and even melodious expression of Orpheus, under the authority of the god of the lyre and of the oracles, leads to a practice of writing.
Plato was very much aware of this paradox in a frequently analyzed passage of the Republic where he denounces the charlatans and roaming diviners (agúrtai kaì mánteis) who attempt to profit from the divine powers conferred upon them by sacrificial practices and incantatory formulas. The latter are designated as charms with magical powers (epagogaîs kaì katadésmois). These charlatans are quick to bring forth piles of papyrus scrolls (bíblon hómadon) whose authority they attribute to Musaeus and Orpheus, “descendants of the Moon and of the Muses.” They pull sacrificial formulas from these scrolls that they address both to individuals and to civic communities while claiming to liberate and purify them (lúseis kaì katharmoí) from injustice through what they call initiations (teletaí). [8] Officiants at rites of initiation, the roaming priests who invoke the authority of Orpheus readily entrust to writing and record in books the memory of the vocal and ritual powers of the incantatory formulas!
This is the great paradox that the Derveni Papyrus presents: it offers citations of a cosmo-theogonic poem in epic and rhapsodic diction proffered by the spoken voice of Orpheus while at the same time inaugurating for us the long {167|168} tradition of the hypómnema, a written practice if ever there was one. This means that the hybrid text presented in the Derveni Papyrus provides an example of a practice of written orality. The meanings at stake in this practice will be examined below.

2. The Derveni Papyrus as a Document

As a rapid introduction to the Derveni Papyrus, it is important to recall that the scroll was discovered in the tomb of a relatively well-off citizen-soldier in Macedonia. Placed on the slabs covering the tomb instead of next to the remains of the departed with the other objects meant to accompany him in the afterlife, the papyrus roll was without a doubt supposed to have been burned with the cadaver on the funeral pyre. Half-consumed, it presents passages taken from an Orphic poem in the form of lemma and fragments of a commentary written around 330. [9] The verses commented upon come themselves from a cosmo-theogonic poem that is repeatedly attributed to Orpheus and can be dated with certainty to the mid-fourth century BCE.
In his Laws, Plato in fact alludes to an ancient discourse (palaiòs lógos) in which the “god” (in this case Zeus) is presented as “the beginning, the end, and the center of everything that exists”; this discourse is characterized as Orphic by the scholiast who explicates the passage. Yet it turns out that Plato is in fact paraphrasing a well-known verse found with one variation in a fragment of a poem in hexameter that is cited in the treatise De mundo. This treatise is attributed to Aristotle and is often incorrectly identified as part of an Orphic hymn to Zeus. This extract is found with several variations in a longer passage cited by the early Church father Eusebius of Caesarea. This passage is certainly a later version of the Orphic narration referred to as the Hieroì lógoi and comprising twenty-four rhapsodies. Dating from the second century CE, this version, which is also celebrated in the commentary of Damascius, probably represents a development of the later version passed on by the Peripatetic philosopher Eudemus of Rhodes. [10] All this shows that the cosmo-theogonic poem widely cited by {168|169} Neo-Platonic philosophers in its rhapsodic version descends, through numerous variations and reconfigurations, from an Orphic poem in epic diction that was already in circulation during the period the Derveni Papyrus was composed.
Yet in an unexpected manner, to say the least, the Derveni commentator not only offers an interpretation of this verse but also cites it in the form in which it appears in the “Eudemus version” and in the Sacred Discourses in 24 Rhapsodies: “Zeus the head, Zeus the middle, from Zeus everything is made.” In addition, the Derveni author responds a little later in the exegesis to another verse that is integrated in this same rhapsodic extract: “Zeus the king, Zeus the foundation of all things, with his exploding thunder.” [11]

3. The Explicated Poem: Rhapsodic and Orphic Diction

Corresponding at least partially with the version known as the “Eudemus” version and with the much later rhapsodic version, the verses cited in the Derveni commentary are taken from a cosmo-theogonic poem in epic diction; this poem narrates in a nonlinear chronology the different phases of the creation of the cosmos and its re-creation by Zeus. From an analytic perspective, the now-classic narrative distinction between Erzählzeit and erzählte Zeit is essential: this double temporality is combined with the temporality of the uttered enunciation. I have tried to demonstrate this elsewhere in relation to the way Hesiod unfolds the story of the five generations of mortal men in Works and Days in order to insert it into the enunciation and into the pragmatic workings of his didactic poem. [12]
Despite the mutilations of the half-consumed papyrus, we can see the following cosmo-theogonic moments in the temporal succession of the five generations: Zeus succeeds Kronos; Zeus receives oracles from Nyx and his father Kronos concerning his future reign on Olympus; Zeus consumes the phallus (aidoîon), probably the virile member of Uranus transformed into the Sun. This primordial phallus, as we will see, was gushing in the Ether, and as the “firstborn” sovereign, Zeus swallows it. From him, the gods and goddesses are (re)born, with the rivers and springs, but also the earth, the sky, the river Okeanos, and the moon—in other words, all that comes into being. Recasting {169|170} the original act of cosmic creation in an apparently inverted order, this second demiurgic act prompts the citation and the commentary on the verses in poetic praise of Zeus mentioned above: Zeus is at the same time the artisan and the foundation of all things. The master of creation is therefore himself assimilated with Moira, if not with the celestial Aphrodite. He can unite with his mother Rhea, who is likely assimilated in the poem itself with Gaia and also Meter and Hera! The burning of the papyrus has unfortunately denied us these last steps—if they existed—of the creation of the world through the intermediary of the genealogy of the gods. Thus there is no primordial Kronos as in the rhapsodic version, nor any mention of the Titans, nor any allusion to Dionysus or to the anthropogony, at least not in the current state of the text. [13]
Neither the Homeric diction used nor the qualifications and functions of Zeus partially visible in the shredded fragments of the lines cited and explicated present any aspect that departs from the grand discursive tradition of Greek traditional cosmo-genealogical poetry; the dactylic rhythm implies a recitation analogous to those chanted in the Rhapsodies. Without a doubt focused on the story of Zeus, these verses could not be part of a hymn, as some of their modern readers have proposed. [14] Rather, the specificity of what is left of the explicated poem lies in its content. Particularly distinctive is Zeus’ swallowing of the phallus, with a play on words perhaps already present in the poem itself. This aidoîon is in fact probably assimilated with the member of Sky and with Sun. The primordial pudendum certainly plays the same role as Eros-Phanes, the luminous golden-winged deity, firstborn and sprung from the primordial egg in other versions of the orphic cosmo-theogony. [15] If it is perhaps Kronos who severs the member of Uranus, it is not at any rate he who swallows it! The progression of the Orphic narrative does not follow the logic of Hesiod’s Theogony, where it is Uranus himself who ingests his own sons, preventing development of the theogonic process.
Transferred from Kronos to Zeus, the act of ingestion leads to two narrative and theological moments that are specific to Orphic cosmological thought: the {170|171} second creation of the universe and the erasing of generations in the blurring of genealogical relationships. Through temporal flattening and vicarious incest, these two narrative processes allow the differentiations of the demiurgic and genealogical process to merge in the unity of an all-powerful divine figure, the beginning and end of all things. [16] We find in the few verses cited and explicated by the sophós of Derveni—echoing to some extent these cosmological and theogonic processes—enunciative phrasings that characterize the Orphic re-elaboration of Homeric diction. These include the paratactic asyndeton for the naming and qualifications of the divinity, the phonetic play of assonance in the descriptions and invocation, the repetition of the divinity’s name in key positions of clauses in the dactylic hexameter, etc. I have analyzed these stylistic elements in another study, to be published soon. These different forms of phonetic and semantic wordplay on the names of the major entities and divinities at work in the creation and the re-creation of the cosmos stress the incantatory nature of epic diction in a rhapsodic recitation that takes on accents made familiar by the Orphic Hymns. [17] The Homeric diction of the rhapsodies developed then into a truly Orphic diction, which likely had ritual significance.

4. Interpretative Procedures

To the eyes and ears of the reader-listener in the fourth century, the poetic utterances of a cosmogony and genealogical narrative believed to be the poetic work of Orpheus are thought of as pertaining to the aínigma; these hexameters in Homeric and Orphic diction are considered by the Derveni author to be “enigmatic” (ainigmatódeis). It is therefore appropriate to examine the interpretive procedures and the modes of enunciation of a hermeneutic voice that is itself enigmatic. It is worth noting that while the written voice of the commentary attributes spoken verses to Orpheus, that written voice itself remains entirely anonymous.
The anonymous commentator expresses himself in general in an entirely assertorial manner. According to him, when the poet says something like “[Zeus] took in his hands [the strength of his father],” he is speaking in implied meaning (ainízetai). Often brought up in Greek texts, this manner of speaking in enigmatic terms is, in particular, that of the man who, according to a dream {171|172} recounted by Herodotus, addresses Hipparchus in dactylic hexameter on the eve of his fatal participation in the Panathenaea: “Bear, you lion, unbearable pains with a patient heart; there is no one, among men who commit injustice, who shall not pay for it.” The error in understanding these two prophetically phrased hexameters would prove fatal for the young tyrant despite the warnings given by the dream interpreters (oneirópoloi) that we find working already in the Iliad. [18]
In the same way, the Derveni commentator presents as “enigmatic” the hexameter that makes Zeus into the head, the center, and therefore the cause of all things created. This Orphic verse, let us not forget, figures in the hieròs lógos from Plato’s Laws cited above as part of a dialogue that is itself more or less contemporary with the Derveni text. According to the anonymous interpreter, who focuses his attention on the term kephalé (the head), Orpheus is not only speaking in hidden meanings in this verse (épos), he is also making revelations (semaínei). We recall that Heraclitus, in a famous passage, attributes this mode of revealing to the oracle of Delphi: the role of the Pythic voice is to “signify.” Herodotus assigns this same semiotic mode to his own historiographical undertaking when, in its opening, he attributes a quasi-judiciary role to his lógos in regards to elucidating the causes of the Greco-Persian wars. According to the Derveni author, the poet Orpheus “indicates” (semaínei: that present things are the product of existing things) when he tells of how the gods as well as the elements were born from “the first-sovereign, the venerable,” the unique principal. To support his assertion, the interpreter cites no fewer than four hexameters taken from the Orphic poem he is explicating: the voice of the poet speaking on the cosmogonic role taken on by Protogonos is designated as a simple “statement” (légei), while the lines cited are presented as hexameters (“in these lines”: en toîs épesi to[îsde). [19]
Furthermore, when a cosmo-theogonic term can take on two meanings, the simple “say” or “tell” (légein) of the poem in epic diction becomes “explain.” This is the case for instance with the now-famous adjective aidoîos describing the object that first gushed in the ether and was in the end consumed by Zeus: “venerable,” which also denotes the pudendum of Uranus incorporated into the Sun. To introduce the double interpretation of this term that is indeed polysemic and to justify the word-for-word interpretation of the poetic expression, the {172|173} commentator readily declares that “[Orpheus] proceeds in enigmas regarding reality through the entire poem”; moreover, from this perspective the poet Orpheus “reveals” (deloî) at the same time he “speaks.” [20] The quasi-oracular process attributed to the poem implicitly conforms to the legendary tradition of the prophetic qualities attributed to the voice of the immortal Orpheus. In addition, this process without a doubt corresponds to the oracular role attributed to Nyx in regards to Zeus in the very narration of the process re-creating the universe.
The oracular nature of the voice assumed by the Orphic poem is clearly summarized in the beginning of the commentary. There the interpreter in fact declares, as a sort of introduction to his exegesis, that the whole of the poem is ainigmatódes and that Orpheus (?) “did not want to tell of contestable enigmas but of great things through enigma.” The conclusion here: the author of the poem is presenting a sacred discourse (hier[log]eîtai). The key to a poetic composition that appears from the outset as a hieròs lógos is thus given. The Derveni commentator ends up effectively paraphrasing the famous orphic verse that recommends the profane close their ears: “I’m going to sing [aeíso] for those who comprehend [xunétoisi]; close the doors, you the profane [bébeloi]”; or, in a formulaic variation that allows for retaining the divisions of the rhythmic structure of the hexameter: “I’m going to speak [phthégxomai] to whom it is permitted; close the doors, you the profane.”
Presented by the Derveni commentator as a “truly distinct” or “truly recognizable” verse (en tôi [euk]rinéto[i épei), this poetic injunction could be read as the first line of the cosmo-theogonic hexameter attributed to Orpheus; it could mark the beginning of the poem proper like a sort of seal or password. It is at any rate construed this way by modern editors of the Orphica who place this enunciation, with its double formulation, at the head of their collection of Orphic fragments. [21] The anonymous poetic voice that speaks in what is likely the opening of the classical cosmo-theogonic poem has thus become, for the sage of Derveni, the voice of Orpheus.
The specific Orphic character of the mechanics of the poem explicated by the author of Derveni resides more in the fact that it is certainly considered {173|174} a “sacred discourse” than in its “enigmatic” features. From this perspective, we might very well recall Socrates’ remark in Plato’s Alcibiades upon hearing the citation of gnomic Homeric verse when the poet is thought to be speaking in enigmas. In response to the citation, Socrates points out that poetry as a whole is ultimately by its nature ainigmatódes; as a result, not everyone will be able to understand it. [22] We also know that, at least as far back as Theagenes of Rhegium around the end of the sixth century, Homeric (and consequently rhapsodic) poetry could be understood in terms of “insinuation” (hypónoia), to quote the expression used by Perikles, according to Thucydides. It is in this manner that the Athenian statesman refers to the mode of meaning typical to Homeric poetry.
Enigmatic expression is then a fundamental feature of all epic poetry, and the thematic implications of this enunciative mode are explored within the poems. For example, in Works and Days, when Hesiod turns to the unjust “kings,” he presents the story of the nightingale captured by the hawk as aînos. The former represents the bard reduced to the cries of the owl having fallen into the hands of the latter, all this while the master lays claim, through the authority of his sovereign speech, to a discretionary power. In a manner of speaking, the animal allegory is decoded through etymological definition. [23]
It makes sense then that the Derveni commentator reiterates in several places that a poem written in an enigmatic manner, like the one he repeatedly attributes to Orpheus, cannot be addressed to the ignorant (usually described as ou gignóskontes), and that it is reserved for those “in the know” (gignóskontes). This term must certainly refer to the “initiate” (xunetoîsi) addressed in the famous verse already cited, which—in a strong and performative affirmation of the poet, speaking in the first person—functions perhaps as the opening of the cosmo-theogonic poem: aeíso xunétoisi. But “Orpheus” is not alone in reserving his poetry for an initiate audience. In the fifth century, both Pindar and Bacchylides say that their own poetic language is intended solely for this same “intelligent” audience! We find in this parallel to exclusive poetry further proof that the group of Orpheus’ followers, while made up of the initiate, cannot be considered a “sect.” This classification is nothing more than a supplementary projection of a Christian-inspired concept onto the Orphic following, a projection in line with {174|175} one of the major traditions of the modern history of religions. But the Orphic groups can be compared to the privileged in each city who possessed the knowledge necessary to access the word of the poets who served as sophoí. [24]
Addressing himself in this way to those in the know, the scholarly Derveni commentator recuperates to some extent in his use of the form he the enunciative mechanism produced by the strong voice of the poet-I, who happens to be an Orphic rhapsode. We see here the Orphic oxymoron divided between the oral and the written, and this is particularly the case in column VII of the papyrus, positioned at the juncture between the ritualistic instructions and the commentary on the poem itself.

5. Erudite Practices

Given the double meaning attributed to poetic enunciation of the explicated poem, both the graphic procedures of citation and the discursive and interpretive modes of the anonymous author in the papyrus also align closely with those of the Alexandrian scholar. Indeed, the work of editing the classic texts collected in the library created by Ptolemy calls for a commentary. While performing this work of edition (ékdosis), the scholar would write down notes, or hypomnémata: actual commentary to the poems from the Archaic and Classical periods, with meanings that began to escape readers because of historic shifts in the cultural and social paradigm of the Hellenistic period. These poems were later archived in libraries where they were read and no longer the object of a musical, oral “performance.” [25]
Following the model that would become Alexandrian philological practice, the verses explicated in the Derveni Papyrus are presented as actual lemmata, marked by an obelus or a paragraphos. These citations are often followed by a formulation using hóti (“because”) that explains why the poetic expression should be understood (or not understood) to have a certain meaning. This is the case, for example, with the hexameter stating Zeus’ royalty: the god is called king because he corresponds to a unique principle that has power over multiple things in existence. Further along in the explicated poem, the mention of the river Okeanos, in a verse that is now lost, provokes the following commentary: “this verse [épos] was composed in a deceptive manner; this is not obvious {175|176} though for most [toîs póllois], but clear [eúdelon] for those with the proper knowledge [toîs orthôs ginóskousin] because Okeanos is the air and the air is Zeus.” We learn here that those who do not know (ou gignóskontes) remain content with the appearance maintained by the words of common language that Orpheus uses to “signify” (semaínei) his own opinion; because of this qualification the uninitiated continue to believe that Okeanos is a river, satisfied with the surface meaning.
Only then those with proper knowledge have access to the second meaning that the commentary itself reveals. Reserved for the initiate—that is, for the beneficiaries of the teletaí that Orpheus himself is thought to have founded—the meaning explicated by the Derveni commentator generally stems from the physical conception of the world developed by thinkers and sages commonly referred to as “pre-Socratic.” [26] The essential feature of the Derveni Papyrus is not so much the explicit reference to Heraclitus—apparently considered to be a mythológos or astrológos and cited by the commentator in the context of an aphorism demonstrating the role played by the Erinyes in the control and respect for the order of the cosmos, particularly in relation to Helios [27] —but rather the likely eclecticism of the Derveni author. In his explanation of the Orphic version of the cosmo-theogonic creation, he brings up different processes taken from physical, and more specifically atomistic, understandings of the world. In this context and because the interpretation itself presents no precise authorial indications, it is not useful to stubbornly apply the modern conception of an individual author to the Derveni commentator; the numerous attempts to attach the name of a known “philosopher” to the document are therefore futile. [28]

6. Questions of Authorship

While Anaxagoras, Diogenes of Apollonia, Euthyphro, and Leucippus have all been mentioned in turn by modern scholars not as authors of the commentary but simply as possible sources of inspiration for the Derveni commentator, the {176|177} discourse seems to be most essentially characterized by a nebulous atomism that is supported by references to a cosmological outlook close to that of Empedocles. The processes of creation and re-creation of the cosmos are thus more or less regularly compared to processes of separation and combination of physical particles. But these cosmogonic processes are put into motion by forces of the divine order, such as Harmonia, Peitho, Aphrodite, and of course Zeus. It’s worth noting that in Hippocratic thought in particular we see this same blend of physically, empirically based explanations with references to the forces at work in polytheist theology. [29]
This is the case, for example, with the gushing or spurting movement that animates the cosmos, according to the Orphic creation. In mentioning this movement, “Orpheus” refers to the process of reciprocal attraction of the elements and basic physical properties such as the cold. He demonstrates (deloî) that particles moving in the air couple together through the affinities they have for each other:
… nor cold with cold. And “through a gushing movement” is the formula he [i.e. Orpheus] uses to demonstrate [deloî] that after having been divided into smaller pieces, the elements moved through the air and gushed, and in gushing, they came together with each other to form anew. Yet they continued gushing until that moment when each went towards its partner. “Celestial Aphrodite,” “Zeus,” “enjoy the pleasures of Aphrodite,” “gush,” “Persuasion,” and “Harmonia,” these words all are used to refer to the same god. … Indeed, when existing realities [tà eónta] were mixing with each other, Zeus received the name “Aphrodite” and that of “Persuasion,” because the elements yielded to each other.
We notice the etymological wordplay with the term thórnei, which can refer to the noun (“a gushing movement” or “ejaculation”) or to a form of the verb (“he gushed” or “he mated with”). The original “gushing” is in this way first associated with the physical movement of the fundamental elements divided into particles of an atomist nature; but this “gushing” is in turn linked, through an assimilation of the verb thórnusthai and the verb aphrodisiázein, to the action of Celestial Aphrodite and Zeus. These two gods themselves are soon after assimilated with the “lesser divinities” Peitho and Harmonia, who serve the goddess of love. Persuasion becomes the force that makes beings give in to one another, while Harmonia is the power that arranges their coming together. [30] {177|178}
From an enunciative perspective, the explanation is introduced as a general assertion by a hóti that recalls the explicative procedure described above. The explicative hóti aligns this general we-truth with revelation by the voice of Orpheus that “says” (lég[on] deloî hóti…): “through a gushing movement.” Through the intermediary of Aphrodite’s involvement, this gushing movement of the particles in the air from the past is aligned with the present state of “things that exist” and their mixing in a generalized sexual union. The whole of this argument is captured in a circular structure found in other explications. In pragmatic fashion, this succession establishes a rhapsodic rhythm in the commentary that doubtless echoed the rhythm of the poem being explicated. [31] From a visual perspective, the parágraphoi that indicate the citations from the poem attributed to Orpheus add a graphic cadence to a text that was probably meant to be read aloud; didactic in nature, this reading surely took place within a circle of Orphic initiates.
The interpretive relationship between the theological cosmogony of the rhapsodic poem attributed to Orpheus and its commentary in terms of “pre-Socratic” physics is established then by a subtle dialectic movement. This interpretive movement combines purely material processes and interventions of divine forces. In the hermeneutic tradition, already detectible in the Homeric poems, that Plato firmly established with his Cratylus, etymological practices naturally provide a royal path towards an exegesis based on the meanings that the very forms of words inspire. [32]
The defining feature of the interpretive mode adopted by the Derveni commentator resides then in his return to explanations of divine powers that are based on physical principles. “Ocean is the air, and the air is Zeus,” he claims in an explicative statement, discussed above, about those who have the knowledge necessary to comprehend the implied meanings of the cosmo-theogonic poem: reciprocity between the physical and the divine is established! Similarly, Zeus’ swallowing of the “venerable” sovereign firstborn and the cosmic unity resulting from this act are interpreted as the definitive establishment of the reign of Noûs through the intermediary of a likely etymological pun on the poetic form moûnos, “only.” [33] Again the hermeneutic discourse leads to the confirma- {178|179} tion of a principle that is more theological than physical. For both the rhapsodic poet “Orpheus” and his anonymous commentator, the definitive establishment of the reign of Zeus as a unique demiurgic and divine principle takes precedent. By this measure, the authority of an interpretation, which is both physical and theological, can only be that of an initiate in the rites of Orpheus; it is the interpretation of an orpheoteléstes, actually an initiator. [34]

7. Itineraries of Initiatory Writing

Everything occurs as if the commentator were struggling to recast in physical terms a theological outlook that he is trying to reinforce by means of a mixed exegesis. In this context of discursive practice of interpretation adopted by an Orphic initiate or by a master of Orphic initiation, the allusion to the rites of initiation following the affirmation of Zeus’ power acquires its full significance. Through a likely comparison to those who are incapable of understanding the cosmo-theogonic poem because of their ignorance, and through the intermediary of a rather strong enunciative intervention, those who perform civic rites and hear the spoken words of the poem without understanding them are condemned. It is impossible to see, hear, or learn while performing the ritual without a certain prerequisite knowledge, a knowledge somewhat similar to vision (hos eidótes, eidésein, etc.): [35]
[Concerning] those men who saw the sacred rites, having performed them in the cities, I’m not all that surprised that they do not understand —it is not possible, in fact, for them to hear and to learn at the same time the words pronounced. But those [who performed these rites] in the presence of a man who has chosen the sacred rites as his art, they are the ones who warrant shock and pity. … While before performing the sacred rites they hope they will know, once they have performed them they find they are deprived even of their hope.
Consequently, it becomes somewhat clearer why the anonymous commentary of this póesis ainigmatódes, of which the diction and composition are attributed to Orpheus, is introduced in the papyrus by a series of prefatory remarks on the performance of ritual gestures. Even if these remarks are disputed in modern readings because of the fragmented condition of the papyrus, it is clear {179|180} that the ritual acts that they allude to in the preface of the poetic commentary are performed by the adept seeking to win the favor of the Erinyes, who themselves are assimilated with the souls. [36] Whether or not there are allusions in these severely mutilated lines to those adept in the Eleusinian mysteries, to oracular practices, or to specifically Orphic ritual gestures, there is a straightforward reference to those who succeed neither in learning nor knowing and who therefore mistrust the rites.
On the enunciative level, the voice in the commentary seems in this passage to be incorporating the authorial I into a collective we. While the form párimen should be understood in this way, the enunciative we stands in opposition to all the uses of they that refer to the individuals who lack the knowledge necessary to understand the ritual gestures they perform or the oracular responses they solicit. This means that from a metadiscursive perspective, the anonymous author of the commentary is presenting himself as a member of the same group of initiates; corresponding to the “knowing” to whom the anonymous interpretation is addressed, these Orphic initiates would possess the knowledge necessary to decipher efficiently the ritual practices and cosmo-theogonic verse placed under the authority of Orpheus. [37] We discover in this manner the power of the voice of Orpheus associated with a didactic procedure and the practices of initiation.
By this measure, the passage introducing the exegesis of the rhapsodic poem originating in the mouth of Orpheus takes on, to some extent, the role of the initial formulaic line that we encountered in its two versions above. In the variations presented, this line, functioning as both an authorial and an initiatory seal, seems to mark the beginning of the different versions of the Orphic cosmo-theogony. [38] “I’m going to sing” (aeíso) or “I’m going to proclaim” (phthégxomai)—this verbal and poetic act responds to the same didactic and initiatory requirements of knowledge as the discursive practice represented in the commentary of the cosmo-theogonic poem attributed to Orpheus. As I have argued elsewhere, [39] the {180|181} Derveni commentary can be considered a sort of intellectual itinerary of initiation because of its dual erudite and theological qualities. Spoken in a primarily assertive mode by an anonymous author, it is offered to an Orphic initiate of the future. As a discursive practice, it is likely that the commentary was read to prepare or to accompany certain ritual gestures of initiation described in the text itself.
Following the circular progression of Zeus’ demiurgic actions narrated in the poem as it develops, the discourse in the exegesis accomplishes a return to the cosmogonic unity proposed to adepts claiming to be under the authority of the poet and original singer Orpheus. In doing so, the Derveni commentator uses the same rhapsodic rhythm, but he uses it to transition from a traditionally oral poem to the practice of reading and writing. For this reason, it is possible to see the figure of Orpheus presented by the Orphic Derveni interpreter as not only the representative of a melodious voice with oracular qualities but also the generic emblem of Orphic cosmo-theogonic poetry in its various rhapsodic forms. Similarly, this is often the case with the figure of “Homer,” cited by classical authors less for being the author of the Iliad or the Odyssey and more as the representative of the epic genre embodied in the rhapsodic tradition. [40] In addition, this “enigmatic” poetry, with the didactic decoding it requires, makes Orpheus the master of initiation, as he is for Aeschylus in Aristophanes’ Frogs.
Through the discursive procedures specific to erudite commentary, the text of the Derveni Papyrus is presented paradoxically as an articulated discourse on practices of worship. It is without a doubt strengthened in this function by the ritual utility conferred through the corresponding intellectual itinerary, both cosmogonic and initiatory, that it seems to offer to the Orphic initiates invited to read it. Resulting from a practice of writing and probably meant less for an oral recitation than for an individual reading (“ritual reading?”), the exegetic Derveni text, with its rhapsodic organization, nevertheless appears as a discourse carrying the marks of poetic utility and meant for initiatory purposes. Its ritual function is apparently double: this discourse serves without a doubt in education, in initiation, and to integrate the new initiate into the group of Orphic officiants before it accompanies him as a text in a second rite of passage, his burial, where the mortal body is destroyed by flames on the funeral pyre. Meant to reveal the hidden meanings of the poem’s Orphic cosmo-theogony transmitted by an inspired voice of poetic authority, the erudite commentary is itself put to use in this didactic and initiatory double function of epistemological as well as ritual nature. {181|182}

8. The Oxymoron of Oral Writing

This paradox of using written scholarly methods to enhance the enchanting powers of a particularly effective poetic voice of initiation is already present in the earliest existing accounts of classical Orphism. While in Euripides’ Hypsipyle the melody of Orpheus’ Thracian cithara accompanies the chant of the Asiatic elegy that provides the cadence for the beating of the Argonauts’ oars, in a famous passage from Hippolytus Theseus accuses his son, guilty of exclusive devotion to Artemis, of belonging to the Orphic following: “Proclaim now your glory; for all nourishment show off your vegetarian diet; with Orpheus as your master join the Bacchants and honor the smoke of numerous writings.” [41] Since the end of the Classical period then, the poetic and initiatory authority of Orpheus had been attached to written texts; and there was immediate distrust and scorn expressed about these texts, as in Plato half a century later.
Alcestis, also by Euripides, provides another contrasting example. On one hand, Admetus, attempting to retrieve his wife from Hades, relates his hope of using the melodious voice (glôssa kaì mélos) of Orpheus to charm Persephone, daughter of Demeter, through song (húmnoisi). On the other hand, the chorus later contrasts the sovereign power of Ananke, or Necessity, with the uselessness “of the tablets of Thrace where the voice [gêrus] of Orpheus was inscribed [katégrapsen].” [42] Whether its effect is positive, as Admetus envisions it, or negative, as in the case of the chorus, who form an analogy with the ineffective drugs that Apollo offered to the followers of Asclepius, the melodious and enchanting word of Orpheus possesses the unique power to inscribe itself onto wooden tablets; the tablets’ origin in Thrace evokes the poet and singer’s native land. By definition the melodious voice of Orpheus is written.
Poetry as Initiation - Chapter 9 - figure 1
Figure 1. Apulian amphora by the Ganymede painter. Antikensammlung Basel S 40. Photo, Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig / Andres F. Voegelin.
Indeed, the paradox of writing down oral discourses offering narrative and didactic forms of poetry that borrow from the tradition of Homeric diction is captured in a way in the image appearing on a famous Apulian amphora attributed to the Ganymede Painter (Figure 1). Dating from the last quarter of the fourth century, this image is contemporary to the Derveni Papyrus. In a shrine representing a tomb, a young Orpheus with his lyre, wearing a Phrygian headdress, is playing, singing, and dancing in front of an old man, who is holding a papyrus scroll in his hand. [43] Regardless of the purpose for the old man of the discourse {182|183} captured in writing, this strange funeral scene evokes the enchanting voice of Orpheus. But this poetic and musical voice is eternalized in a text meant for the deceased, which evokes the figure of the citizen whose remains, consumed by fire, were laid to rest at Derveni. This striking iconographic representation of the oral–written oxymoron related to Orpheus’ authoritative voice suggests all at once the nature, the function, and the circumstances of the first initiatory Orphic text discovered by modern scholars.{183|}


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[ back ] 1. Focused on the Derveni Papyrus, the present article originated as a much shorter piece published in Italian (Guidorizzi and Melotti 2005:28–45). A longer version, translated into Spanish, was published in Bernabé and Casadesús 2009:841–866. The present version benefited not only from exchanges at a July 2009 conference at the Center for Hellenic Studies but also from being presented during my 2009–2010 seminar on the anthropology of Greek poetics at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Special thanks to Ioanna Papadopoulou for her active role during that seminar. An abridged version of the second part of this article was included in “The Authority of Orpheus, Poet and Bard: Between Oral Tradition and Written Practice,” in Ph. Mitsis and Ch. Tsagalis, eds., Allusion, Authority, and Truth: Critical Perspectives on Greek Poetic and Rhetorical Praxis (Berlin, 2010) 13–35.
[ back ] 2. LIMC, s.v. “Orpheus,” 6 (see also “Argonautai,” II 1, 593n2); a black-figure vase in Heidelberg, dated to around 580, could be a representation of Orpheus between two Sirens: see Riedweg 1996:1275.
[ back ] 3. Apollonius of Rhodes 4.891–911; other instances of the effects of Orpheus’ music have been collected and discussed by Riedweg (1996:1273–1279); see also Bernabé 2001:63–76; on the hero’s participation in the voyage of the Argonauts, see Graf 1987:95–99.
[ back ] 4. Pindar Pythians 4.176–177 = Orphica 899 I T/1006 T Bernabé, cf. sch. ad loc. (II, p. 139 Drachmann) = Orphica 899 II and III T Bernabé, as well as the accounts gathered as Orphica 985 T and 896 T Bernabé. On the genealogy of Orpheus, cf. Pseudo-Apollodorus The Library 1.3.2 = Orphica 901 II T Bernabé. On Orpheus as the son of Calliope and Oeagrus or Apollo see also Ovid Metamorphoses 10.187 and 11.8 = Orphica 897 T and 1035 II T Bernabé: Orpheus divine son of Apollo (vatis Apollineus).
[ back ] 5. Aristophanes Frogs 231, and 1035–1036 = Orphica 547 I T Bernabé. On the broader meaning of teleté as a general ritualistic practice of initiation, see Burkert 1987:9–11; for the more specific meaning as a rite of initiation into the Orphic mysteries, see Morand 2001:140–146.
[ back ] 6. Aeschylus Bassarids: TrGF pp. 138–139 Radt = Eratosthenes Catasterismi 24 = Orphica 536 T and 1033 T Bernabé. For modern readers, the episode where Orpheus’ head arrives at Lesbos and becomes an oracle appears most notably in Philostratus Heroicus 28.7–11 = Orphica 1056 T Bernabé; other texts in Graf 1987:85–86 point out additionally that the scene of the Orphic sparagmos at the hands of the Thracian women appears as early as 480: cf. LIMC, “Orpheus,” 32–51. On the legend of the complex relationship linking Orpheus, Apollo, and Dionysus, see Detienne 1989:124–132.
[ back ] 7. Red-figure vase (ARV 2 1401.1) = LIMC, “Orpheus,” 70 = “Apollon,” 872; other representations of Orpheus’ singing head are listed in Schmidt 1972. In regards to two cuneiform Mesopotamian documents and to magical Greek texts invoking Apollo through a head or a skull, Faraone presents the hypothesis of scenes of necromancy (2005:71–83).
[ back ] 8. Cf. Plato Republic 364b–365a = 573 I–II F Bernabé; for a well-done discussion of the incantatory formulas and practices of initiation attributed to Orpheus, see Jiménez San Cristóbal 2008a.
[ back ] 9. Bibliographic information on the archeological circumstances of the discovery and on the dating of the document are available in Bernabé 2002:91–93; Betegh 2004:56–68; and Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou 2006:1–9.
[ back ] 10. Plato Laws 715e = Orphica 31 III F Bernabé and schol. Plato Laws 715e (p. 317 Greene) = Orphica 31 IV F Bernabé, through probable reference to the version later cited by Pseudo-Aristotle De mundo 401a25–31 = Orphica 31 I F Bernabé, then by Eusebius Praeparatio evangelica 3.8.2 (= Porphyry fr. 354 Smith) = Orphica 243 F Bernabé; cf. West 1983:218–220 and 239–241. For the three versions of the orphic cosmo-theogony cf. Damascius De principiis 123–124 (III, pp. 159–162 Westerink) = Orphica 20 I F, 75 F and 90 T Bernabé; in reference to the three versions, see Brisson 1995:2875–2915.
[ back ] 11. Derveni Papyrus, col. XVII 12 and XIX 10 = Orphica 14, 2 and 4 F Bernabé (who was able to use the Derveni commentary to reconstruct four verses of this passage of the Orphic poem dedicated to the pervasive unity of Zeus); concerning the Orphic Hymn 15 addressed to Zeus, see Ricciardelli 2000:298–300.
[ back ] 12. See Calame 2009:5–24 and 59–94, attempting to place this narrative in its poetic and enunciative context, in contrast to the numerous structural analyses of the Hesiodic, wrongly called,“mythe des races.”
[ back ] 13. These different phases of the poetic cosmo-theogony explicated in the papyrus have been reconstituted recently by Bernabé (2002:102–123); see also Betegh 2004:92–137 as well as an overly normalized version in Jourdan 2003:XVIII–XXIV. In their commentary, Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou remain much more cautious regarding reconstructions that rely too heavily on the model provided by the first phases of Hesiod’s cosmic creation in the Theogony. On the absence of Kronos, see Betegh 2004:157–158.
[ back ] 14. See West 1983:74–75 and 96–104; Betegh (2004:136–138) develops an argument against the hypothesized hymn despite the term ]mnon that can be established in col. VII  2 (cf. II  8 as well); Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou 2006:171.
[ back ] 15. On the figure of Phanes-Protogonos-Eros, see Calame 1991:231–237; concerning the functioning of the double meaning of aidoîon in the poem itself, see Calame 1997:66–72, Bernabé 2002:104–107, Brisson 2003, and Betegh 2004:111–122 and 171–172.
[ back ] 16. The process of re-creating a cosmos in unity has been discussed in Calame 1997:66–74 and Bernabé 2002:114–118.
[ back ] 17. On the structure, lexicon, and formulaic language of the Orphic Hymns, see the two studies by Rudhardt (1991:267–274 and 2008:177–250) as well as the strong analysis of Hopman-Govers (2001). See also Morand 2001:58–76 on wordplay and 101–137 for the titles that generally refer to smoke offerings.
[ back ] 18. Derveni Papyrus col. IX 10; cf. Herodotus 5.56.1–2 and Homer Iliad I.63. In the following passage of the text, which is greatly fragmented, the commentator seems to strongly affirm that he has made visible that which is not readily apparent.
[ back ] 19. Derveni Papyrus col. XVII 11–13 and col. XVI  1–7 (for the use of the form semaínei, see also col. XXV  13, in relation to gignóskein); cf. Heraclitus fr. 22 B 93 DK and Herodotus 1.5.3. On the Orphic verses explicated in this passage, see n11 above.
[ back ] 20. Derveni Papyrus col. XIII 1–5; bibliography on the question of the use of the term aidoîon available above in n15.
[ back ] 21. Derveni Papyrus col. VII 3–11, in the new text presented and annotated by Tsantsanoglou (1997:95 and 117–128), with the commentary of Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou (2006:171–174); the verse paraphrased by the Derveni author is reconstructed and published as Orphica 3 F Bernabé (cf. 2 T as well as 101 F Bernabé) in reference to the double enunciation 1a and 1b F Bernabé cited above; on this formulaic introductory verse, see the remarks by West (1983:82–84) and Burkert (2005:49–51). On Orphic discourse as hieroì lógoi, see Baumgarten 1998:89–97 and Henrichs 2003:237–244.
[ back ] 22. Plato Alcibiades II 142ac; see also Aristotle Poetics 22.1458a, which condemns enigma as an overuse of metaphorical expression, and Rhetoric to Alexander 35.18, where “enigmatic expression” (ainigmatodôs hermeneúein) is understood as a way of saying one thing by employing terms that denote something else.
[ back ] 23. Thucydides 2.41.3–4; Hesiod Works and Days 202–212; for the relationship between the procedure of aînos and the first “allegorical” readings of Homeric poetry, see Nagy 1990:147–150 and 425–430, as well as Ford 2002:62–75, along with the numerous bibliographic references I gave on the subject in 1997:65n2.
[ back ] 24. Derveni Papyrus IX 2, XII 5, XVIII 5, XX 2–3 and 8, XXIII 2 and 5, XXVI 8; cf. Orphica 1a F Bernabé, Pindar Olympian 6.83–85, and Bacchylides 3.85 (garúo as well). Recently Bremmer (2010:22–29) criticized using the notion of a “sect” to describe the groups of Orphic followers.
[ back ] 25. On the original meaning of hypómnema as a “written note,” see Plato Phaedrus 249c and Politicus 295c. On the subject of commentary as a scholarly genre in the Hellenistic period, see Pfeiffer 1968:212–227.
[ back ] 26. Derveni Papyrus XIX 10–15 and XXIII 1–10; for a reconstruction of the verses concentrating on Okeanos, see most recently Bernabé 2002:119–120 and Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou 2006:256–260; for explanations of speculations about classical physical thinkers, see in particular the references given by West (1983:80–81) and by Laks (1997:127–134); see also Brisson’s recent attempt to link the Derveni author’s materialist interpretation to Stoic thought and allegorical practice, 2009:33–39.
[ back ] 27. Derveni Papyrus IV, 5–9 citing Heraclitus frr. 22 B 3 and 94 DK; cf. Sider 1997:129–144 (who reads hiero]lógoi; bibliography on this passage 130n5), and Tsantsanoglou 1997:96–109 (who adds mytho]lógoi), as well as Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou 2006:153–157.
[ back ] 28. The unfruitful efforts of modern scholars at authorial attribution are listed by Betegh (2004:64–65 and 373–380), and discussed by Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou (2006:58–59).
[ back ] 29. See for instance Holmes 2010:121–191 and Lloyd 2003:40–61.
[ back ] 30. Derveni Papyrus XXI 1–12; on this cosmic movement, see Calame 1997:70–74 (with n7) as well as Laks and Most 1997:21n53 on the form and meaning of thórnei and Bernabé 2002:118–119, along with the comparative remarks by Burkert (2005:55–60), and recently the extended commentary of Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou (2006:243–252).
[ back ] 31. The prose narratives in Plato’s Timaeus and Critias can adopt the rhapsodic rhythm of the Homeric poems recited at the Great Panathenaea: Nagy 2002:52–69.
[ back ] 32. The analogies between the etymological procedures of the Derveni commentator and those accumulated in Plato’s Cratylus are pointed out in particular by Kahn 1997:60–63. For the combinations of physical explanations and references to divine figures, see Laks 1997:130–137.
[ back ] 33. Derveni Papyrus XXIII 1–3 (see n26 above) and XVI 3–14 (n19 above and Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou 2006:214–217).
[ back ] 34. Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou (2006:45–58) conclude in their review of the different theses advanced on this subject that “the Derveni author is not Orphic or even anti-Orphic” (52) and not “a religious professional” (53). Contrary to their conclusion, we refer to the proposition of Fritz Graf (in this volume), who sees the Derveni author as an orpheotelestés.
[ back ] 35. Derveni Papyrus XX 1–12; for references on this passage, see Calame 1997:77–78.
[ back ] 36. These remarks cover cols. II–VI of the Derveni Papyrus, particularly col. V 5–13. See Tsantsanoglou 1997:96–117 and Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou 2006:144–171 as well as the new reading proposed by Ferrari (2011b:74–82) that develops a parallel with practices of Persian magi (see also 2011a:51–54).
[ back ] 37. Derveni Papyrus V 3. According to Most (1997:120 and 130), this enunciative we refers to a group of professionals opposed to both the priests of civic cults and individuals who claim to be experts on the sacred rites (on the latter, see also Betegh 2004:78–83); this reading runs counter to Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou (2006:53–54 and 161–162), who interpret the form párimen as an infinitive and the equivalent of pariénai (see Burkert, in this volume, p. 113).
[ back ] 38. Orphica 1a and b F as well as 3 F and 101 F Bernabé; cf. Derveni Papyrus VII 9–10 and n21 above.
[ back ] 39. Calame 1997:77–80; see also Obbink 1997:40–47 and Laks 1997:138140. The parallel sometimes established with initiatory itineraries presented in gold lamellae, funerary texts incorrectly associated with Orphism, is not relevant here: see Calame 2011a; as a result, Most (1997:125–134) certainly goes too far in his claims that the Derveni commentary is an “eschatological theology” in the form of “soteriological physics.”
[ back ] 40. See my analysis of the significance of the name and figure of Homer (2004:26–31).
[ back ] 41. Cf. Euripides Hippolytus 948–954 (= Orphica 627 T Bernabé) as well as Euripides Hypsipyle fr. 752g, 8–14 Kannicht (= Orphica 1007 Bernabé); see also fr. 759a, 1614–1623 Kannicht (= Orphica 1009 T Bernabé).
[ back ] 42. Euripides Alcestis 357–362 (= Orphica 980 T Bernabé) and 962–971 (= Orphica 812 T Bernabé); see also Calame 2002:397–400.
[ back ] 43. Apulian amphora by the Ganymede Painter, Antikenmuseum Basel inv. S 40 (= LIMC, “Orpheus,” 20); see the detailed commentary in my recent study, Calame 2011b.