13. Posidippus and the Mysteries: Epitymbia Read by the Ancient Historian

Beate Dignas, University of Michigan

Grave Inscriptions—Grave Epigrams

Ancient historians and epigraphists rarely consider Hellenistic poetry in their research. Although literally transmitted funerary epigrams have been absorbed frequently in epigraphic corpora, skepticism prevails even with regard to this category. But neither Posidippus nor other Hellenistic poets, nor their impact on historical insights can be ignored altogether. P. Bing calls the distinction between ‘inscribed’ and ‘quasi inscriptional’ texts “a hermeneutical crux”—looking at Hellenistic epigrams from the philologist’s angle he observes that “the possibility of inscription bedevils scholars who deal with funerary epigram.” [1] In analogy, the historian should complain to be bedeviled by the possibility of literary fiction. But is this so? Does it matter whether Posidippus composed an epigram for it to be inscribed, or composed it and then it happened to be inscribed, or composed it knowing that it would never be inscribed, or was inspired by a monument that he thought should be inscribed, or used an inscribed epitaph as a model, or thought of an epitaph for a person he knew? The possible scenarios are many. On both ‘sides’, scholars have denied that it matters, because the generic conventions of both types—meter, structure, formulae, and themes—are the same; the history of the term ‘epigramma’ and its meaning confirm that one cannot really be understood without the other. [2]
Epitaphs both in meter and prose began to appear in the mid-seventh century BCE: the dead person’s name, sometimes accompanied by patronymic or ethnic, was incorporated into a short formula. Soon this was expanded, with the main intention to commemorate the deceased as an ideal type. From early onwards the reader was envisaged as moving along, encouraged to stop, to praise the deceased as well as the poem and the monument. This dialogue between monument and passerby can take many forms: the stone can speak for itself; the dead person, the dedicator who composed or commissioned the inscription, or the passing reader’s voice can be heard. The texts inform the reader not only about the deceased’s name and homeland but also about how he died, who performed funeral rites, and about the feelings of survivors. Moreover, inscribed epitaph was an integral part of grave monuments. A three-dimensional character, the fact that the text was an essential part of a monument that often showed secondary decoration reinforcing the praise and characterization of the dead person, is thus crucial for its interpretation. [3] However, this monumental aspect of grave inscriptions was often imitated in literary epigrams that appear to describe the relief or sculpture of a grave monument. [4] As R. Thomas puts it, “the fiction of functionality is part of the essence of the developing epigrammatic genre.” [5] Hellenistic epigram books, which were preceded by a growing interest in authorship in the fourth century BCE, and which can be traced to the first half of the third century, were thus not an antidote to inscriptions but a form of literary expression that imitated and further developed what poets found on stone and composed for epigraphic purposes. Not surprisingly, some historians have included the literary epigram in their analysis of particular themes in grave inscriptions [6] and, vice versa, philologists have observed epitaphic rhetoric as inspiration and boundary for the Hellenistic poet. [7]
There are, however, epigrams that can most likely be identified as literary and in which the conventional features of epitaphs are absent or even reversed; even texts that carry the bedeviling possibility of inscription may be more different from epitaphs than assumed. P. Bing argues that there is indeed a basic difference between the two types of texts and labels this difference as one of reader response: the reader of epigram deals with the lack of context that a monument would provide by way of engaging his imagination. [8] This response is of concern to the ancient historian, as he or she scrutinizes any context provided at least for its plausibility, if not authenticity. If the text had been inscribed, he or she would still hesitate to take it at face value [9] but the information would at least gain a concrete setting: names and places, institutions and activities.
In what follows, I shall not offer any solution to the ‘hermeneutical crux’. Reading the section of the Milan papyrus that features ‘epitymbia’, one theme in particular catches the interest of the historian of Greek religion: epitaphs for initiates in the mysteries. Trying to avoid the ‘imaginative play’ [10] of a casual reader but nevertheless contextualizing the texts, we can find out more about the author of the epigrams as well as his subject.

Posidippus’ Epitymbia

The heading of the section ‘epitymbia’ has been completely restored by the editors of the text. [11] In comparison with some of the other sections of the papyrus this one is long, as it comprises 20 epigrams, covering the columns VII.9–X.6 (AB 42–61). It is remarkable that the epitaphs almost exclusively regard women; only the last two poems (AB 60–61) were written for men. The section starts with three epitaphs for women who had been initiated in mystery cults. These poems are followed by four epitaphs for older women, seven epitaphs for young girls, two epitaphs for women who died in childbirth, two more epitaphs for old women, and the final two for men. On the whole, the themes of the texts are very familiar both from ‘inscribed’ and ‘quasi inscriptional’ funerary epigrams: the praise of longevity, the lament for young girls who died before marriage and before having given birth to children, the sorrow for death in childbirth, etc. [12] In contrast to the anthologies, which also include these groups, the focus on women takes priority over epitaphs for famous men, noble men, philosophers, warriors, and sons. The majority of the epitymbia show a third person narrative, dialogues with frequent changing voices but no puns or jokes, as were common among epitaphs. The poems rather describe and express compassion for the typical lives and activities of women.
Let us turn to the first three epigrams. Scholars are surprised about this group as few epitaphs concerning initiates in mystery cults exist from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. [13] The largest group among the grave inscriptions that refer to Dionysus, Dionysiac activities, or Bacchic activities represents epitaphs for members of Bacchic organizations who are promised continued participation in the thiasos of Dionysus. [14] This is followed by epitaphs for children initiated by their parents, whose grief even Dionysus cannot take away. What is even more remarkable than the scarce number of relevant texts is the difficulty in identifying such texts. Most obviously, pictorial representations suggesting a Dionysiac context (ivy leaves, grape clusters, cantharoi etc.) may be misleading as sole indicators. [15] In other cases particular terms in the texts can be associated with initiation but do not provide a clear indicator. They may touch on ideas about the lands of the blessed, the Elysian Fields, or the special sphere of the pious, but do not explicitly mention mysteries. [16] Throughout, a clear eschatological message does not appear in grave inscriptions on stone, nor does the myth of Dionysus feature. [17] When the texts themselves mention initiation explicitly it may not be possible to distinguish between Dionysiac initiates and those of other mystery cults. When specified, reference is mostly made to the Eleusinian mysteries.
These “ambiguities” apply also to the three epigrams discussed here. The first text in the section (AB 42) is actually too fragmentary for restoration.
ἡ Ἑκατ[ ±26 ].ων
     κεῖτα̣[ι ±18 ].[.....].[
ϲῶϲ ἔτι κ̣[ ±11 ]η̣ϲιη ἐ<κ> δ.[...]ων
γνήϲιον ἀμφοτέρω̣ν̣ αἷμ᾿, ἀγαθὴ γε̣ν̣ε̣ή̣. [18]
The [servant] of Hecate … lies … still safe … of … genuine blood of both … good descent.
Given the content of the following two epigrams it seems plausible that this first one, too, was an epitaph for a female initiate. This is possibly confirmed by the letters εκατ[ in the first line. Although a restoration ἑκατὸν or ἑκατονταέτις (cf. AB 47, l.5) would also be possible, Hecate’s connection with the mysteries comes to mind. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (438–40) her actual cult title is propolos of Demeter or Persephone, so that she has her role and prerogatives at Eleusis. On an Attic red-figure bell-krater of ca. 440 BCE she is shown leading Persephone up from Hades, thus acting as a mediator between the worlds. [19] The editors of the Milan papyrus therefore suggest the genitive dependent of a noun such as as θεράπνη or πρόπολος, which would characterize the deceased. [20] The expression ἀγαθὴ γενεή (line 4) might refer to the offspring of the deceased woman, who was then supposedly married and of fairly old age. As the second epigram is also for an old woman, this would match the composition of the whole section, which has epitaphs for older women precede those of young girls.
The second epigram in the section (AB 43) is an epitaph for Nicostrate, who had been initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries. [21]
ἦλθεν ἐπ᾿ εὐϲεβέων Νικοϲτράτη ἱερὰ μ̣υ̣ϲτῶν
     ὄργια καὶ καθαρὸν πῦ̣ρ ἐπὶ Τριπτολέ̣[μου.
ἣν ἂψ ἡ φ..[.....]... Ῥαδαμάνθυοϲ [
     Αἰακὸϲ ε[......]. δῶ̣μ̣α̣ πύ̣λαϲ τ᾿{ε̣} Ἀΐδεω
τ̣έκνων̣ [πλῆθοϲ] ἰδο̣ῦ̣ϲαν· ἀεὶ δ̣᾿ ἁπα[λώτερο]ϲ̣ οὕτω
     ἀνθρώπ̣[οιϲ λυγρ]ο̣ῦ γήραόϲ ἐϲτι λιμή[ν
Nicostrate came to the dwellings of the blessed, to the sacred rites of the initiates and the pure fire before the house of Triptolemus. Again the … of Rhadamanthys … Aeacus … her to the house and gates of Hades, she who had seen the [crowd] of her children; in this way the harbor of sad old age is always softer for mankind.
The fact that Nicostrate is transferred into a world that she had glimpsed already during her lifetime (indicated by ἄψ) is important in order to make the case that she was indeed an initiate. Described is not just the transition to the underworld, which may be part of any epitaph. The final sentence, “the harbor of sad old age is softer this way,” has a double meaning in that her comfort could either lie in having seen her children grow up or in the initiation with the promised blessed afterlife.
The third epitaph (AB 44) is for a young girl named Niko from Posidippus’ birthplace Pella. She was a servant of Dionysus, a young Bacchant.
ἐκ τέκνω̣[ν νεάτ]η̣ν δυοκαίδεκα καὶ .[.....]ϲ̣α.
     παρθένο̣[ν ἔκλαιο]ν Πέλλ̣[α] καὶ Εὐιάδ̣[εϲ
αἶ̣ τρίϲ, ἐπ[ειδὴ Μοῖ]ρα Διωνύϲοιο θερά[πνην
     Νικὼ Β̣αϲ̣[ϲαρικῶν] ἤγαγε̣ν ἐξ ὀρέων̣.
Pella and the Bacchants were lamenting the [youngest] of twelve children, a … young girl, “Alas”, three times, since Fate led the servant of Dionysus, Niko, down from the Bassaric mountains.
The Εὐιάδ[εϲ in this case are not the mythological Maenads but the local women initiated in the Dionysiac mysteries. Their exclamation αἶ τρίϲ refers to the threefold invocation of the deceased that we encounter already in Homer (e.g. Odyssey IX 65), which also makes the restoration of the imperfect ἔκλαιον more plausible than the rather too long aorist ἔκλαυσαν. The ἐξ ὄρεων contrasts with and at the same time reminds of the famous cry of the Bacchants in Euripides’ Bacchae (163ff.), εἰς ὄρος, εἰς ὄρος. A famous inscription from Miletus illustrates nicely that walking to the mountains was a central feature in Bacchic rites: [22]
“τὴν ὁσίην χαίρειμ” πολιήτιδες εἴπατε βάκχαι
     “ἱρείην” χρηστῇ τοῦτο γυναικὶ θέμις,
ὑμᾶς κεἰς ὄρος ἦγε καὶ ὄργια πάντα καὶ ἱρὰ
     ἤνεικεμ πάσης ἐρχομένη πρὸ πόλεως
τοὔνομα δ᾿ εἴ τις ξεῖνος ἀνείρεται· Ἀλκμειωνίς
     ἡ Ῥοδίου, καλῶμ μοῖραν ἐπισταμένη.
You Bacchants in the city say, “Be greeted, pure priestess”; this is proper for a good woman.
She led you to the mountain and carried all the sacred symbols, walking before the whole city.
But if a stranger asks about her name: she was Alkmeionis, daughter of Rhodios, and she had the destined understanding of the good things.
The final ἐπειδή-clause at the end of Niko’s epitaph is rather enigmatic. Does the comment “fate led her down from the mountains” merely symbolize her death as such, or could it be that she actually died during the orgiastic rites on the mountains? Plutarch’s famous fourth-century story about the maenads of Delphi comes to mind: during a winter night the exhausted maenads fell asleep in the marketplace of war-shaken Amphissa and were only rescued by local women, who made sure that they returned safely to Delphi. [23] In spite of such allusions, however, we see Bacchic rites and a priestess of Dionysus well integrated into the world of polis religion—which was not exceptional at all. Dionysiac sacrifice, which is documented well in sacred calendars and cult regulations, took place side by side with sacrifices to other civic divinities. [24] In contrast, evidence of Bacchic initiation ritual is virtually absent.
In particular the third epigram makes us wonder about the concrete context and even the authenticity of what we are told. Posidippus’ birthplace Pella is concerned, and from other written and material evidence we know that Dionysiac rites and orphic mysteries existed in Macedonia, and indeed in Macedonian Pella. [25] Numerous tombs painted with Dionysiac scenes have been found. In the literary accounts the royal family features prominently as followers of Dionysus: Argaeus, the first king supposedly installed the cult of Dionysus with virgin maenads. [26] Plutarch describes Alexander the Great’s mother Olympias vividly as a maenad. [27] Alexander himself started to identify with the god and promoted the worship of the god tremendously. Not least, there is the Derveni papyrus which contains an account of rites and eschatological beliefs, together with a prose allegorical-philosophical interpretation of a theogonic Orphic poem. [28]
Given that other texts, such as Posidippus’ elegy On Old Age [29] and proxeny decrees for him by the Aetolian League at Thermum [30] and from Delphi, [31] show the poet’s close contacts with his birthplace Pella, it is not too far-fetched to assume that Posidippus might have known Niko or other initiates in Pella. In fact, already before the new papyrus collection was known, M. Dickie and L. Rossi argued that Posidippus was deeply involved in religious life and was himself an initiate. Both scholars have referred to pieces of evidence that might not have been conclusive on their own but certainly deserve to be reconsidered in light of the new papyrus. [32] A few years ago several gold leaves were discovered in tombs in Pella, one of which dates to the late fourth century and bears the following inscription:
This and comparable leaves or tablets found not only in Macedonia originated among groups of worshippers who were initiates of Dionysus and shared beliefs about the afterlife. [34] Unlike this particular text others actually describe the landscape of the underworld and give instructions to the dead person. A gold leaf from Southern Italy helps our understanding of the dative on the Pella leaf: it is not a dedicatory dative but an abbreviated form of the phrase “tell Persephone/bring to the attention of Persephone.” The text leaves no doubt that Bacchic mysteries are concerned and that Persephone played a key role in the initiate’s admittance to the underworld. [35]
νῦν ἔθανες καὶ νῦν ἐγένου, τρισόλβιε, ἄματι τῶιδε.
     εἰπεῖν Φερσεφόναι σ᾿ ὅτι Βάχ<χ>ιος αὐτὸς ἔλυσε. [36]

And now you have died and now you have been born, three times blessed, on this day.
     Tell Persephone that Dionysus himself has freed you.
Although the “pious initiate” in the fourth century leaf from Pella cannot be our poet and although the name Posidippus is reasonably common in Macedonia, a family connection seems plausible. [37] If one takes hints from these gold leaves and allows for a connection with the epigrammatist, several passages in the so-called Seal of Posidippus or Poem on Old Age [38] take on far more concrete meanings than they would otherwise. At least two passages in the poem feature the language of mysteries and initiation.
εἴ τι καλόν, Μοῦσαι πολιήτιδες, ἢ παρὰ Φοίβου
     χρυσολύρεο καθαροῖς οὔασιν ἐκλύετε
Παρνησοῦ νιφόεντος ἀνὰ πτύχας ἢ παρ᾿ Ὀλύμπου
     Βὰκχῳ τὰς τριετεῖς ἀρχόμεναι θυμέλας,
νῦν δὲ Ποσειδίππῳ στυγερὸν συναείσατε γῆρας
     γραψάμεναι δέλτων ἐν χρυσέαις σελίσιν. [39]

If, Muses of my city, you have heard anything beautiful
     in your pure ears from Phoebus of the golden lyre
in the glens of snowy Parnassus or when celebrating
     in Olympus the triennial festivals for Bacchus,
now help Posidippus to sing of his hateful old age,
     inscribing the golden leaves of his tablet.

μηδέ τις οὖν χεύαι δάκρυν. αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ
γήρᾳ μυστικὸν οἶμον ἐπὶ Ῥαδάμανθυν ἱκοίμην
δήμῳ καὶ λαῷ παντὶ ποθεινὸς ἐών. [40]

So may no one shed a tear. But in old age
may I travel the mystic path to Rhadamanthys,
adored by the city and all its people. [41]
It is possible that the lines have a metaphorical meaning and merely describe the initiation of the poet in his craft by the muses. [42] One may also argue, however, that they truly reflect the language and confidence of an initiate of Dionysus. [43] To tip the scales, the new epigrams for female initiates would appear to be strong support for this second, more concrete interpretation. Given how scarce their epigraphic counterparts were, they show an exceptional interest, familiarity, and even involvement in the language and rites of Dionysiac worshippers. The fact that the epigrams are the first three ‘epitymbia’ and that they form a section of their own within this group gives them a special quality. If Posidippus’ epigrams functioned as a “model book,” they would have attracted an interesting ‘clientele’ and would have promoted Dionysiac worship. As such, or if used for inscription on stone, they would have been widely read. [44]
Posidippus’ epigrams hence grow on the ancient historian. As reflections of contemporary reality they are potentially significant. [45] As expressions coming “from within,” they are undoubtedly significant for our knowledge of ancient mystery cults and their worshippers.


[ back ] 1. Bing 1998:29.
[ back ] 2. For references to works regarding the relationship between Greek epigram and epigraphy see Rossi 2001:3n2; Rossi calls epigram the “literary alter ego” of epigraphs; see also Gutzwiller 1998:47–49.
[ back ] 3. It is remarkable that the correspondence between epigram and sculptural ornamentation, which does apply in most cases in the Archaic and Classical periods, often does not exist in the Hellenistic period. Although at this time epigram was very concerned with private matters and with grief and emotions, reliefs on public grave stelai tend not to be. These differing messages might be a result of “mass production” with only the epitaph having been specifically commissioned for a given situation or individual; for a detailed analysis on second century grave reliefs from Smyrna, see Zanker 1993:212–230; Rossi 2001:20 and n24 denies altogether that funerary inscriptions had any explanatory function with regard to the iconographic aspect of the monument. She explains this observation by pointing out that each had its own tradition of formulaic conventions.
[ back ] 4. Lefkowitz 2001 explains epigram AB 56, “The epigram may describe a representation of the dead woman and her son on a grave stele,” although in this case no monument is mentioned.
[ back ] 5. Thomas 1998:205.
[ back ] 6. In his dissertation on women’s praise in Greek funerary epigram, Pircher 1979:11, explains the selection of texts, “Die in der Anthologia Palatina literarisch überlieferten Epigramme konnten nicht ausgeschlossen werden, da sie, wenngleich oft fingiert, in Formular und Thematik durchaus in die Nähe der echten Grabgedichte zu stellen sind.”
[ back ] 7. Walsh 1991:77–105, observes the influence of epitaph rhetoric outside the graveyard and sees the Hellenistic poet as the reader of inscriptions, as an interpreter of signs who uses the constraints and possibilities of real epitaphs for his art; it is also possible, of course, that vice versa certain formulae originated in literature and then passed to epigraphy.
[ back ] 8. Bing 1998:35; Rossi 2001:5, however, insists that even manifestly fictitious epigrams always featured at least a single epigraphic marker.
[ back ] 9. A good example is the statement by Garland 1985:xi, “Epitaphs are in fact of limited value to this study since, with some signal exceptions, the majority record little more than the achievements and virtues of the deceased and the sense of loss which he has bequeathed to his relatives.”
[ back ] 10. Bing 1998:35.
[ back ] 11. For arguments in favor of this restoration see the commentary in BG:157. As the adjectives were synonymous, we could also restore epitaphia.
[ back ] 12. Rossi 2001:13 claims that the interest in categories of the dead rather than the defunct as an individual marks the difference between funerary epigram and epigraphic model—this shift in interest might, however, occur after composition.
[ back ] 13. The great majority of the texts date from the imperial period; see BG:158; the editors refer to GV 1344 (= Merkelbach-Stauber 1998:01/20/21), Merkelbach-Stauber 1998:01/20/45; GV 1916; GV 509 (= Merkelbach-Stauber 1998:03/02/74), GV 974; GV 2012; GV 694; GV 879, Merkelbach-Stauber 1998:04/19/02. See also GV 1179 (= Merkelbach-Stauber 1998:05/01/50), Merkelbach-Stauber 2001a:10/03/02; Merkelbach-Stauber 2001b:14/07/06; Merkelbach-Stauber 2002:17/09/04, 18/01/22, 21/12/02, 01/19/29; Betz 1998:400n7 with a list of epitaphs that allude to the initiation of the deceased.
[ back ] 14. Cf. Cole 1993:280–292; Cole counts a total of 75 sepulchral inscriptions, 25 of which fall under this category. She observes that only four texts relate to women; cf. Cole 1993:283.
[ back ] 15. See, e.g., Merkelbach-Stauber 2001b:16/34/24; the editors entitle the epitaph for a certain Daphne from Dorylaion (imperial period) “Daphne, eine Dionysosmystin?” because a grape cluster is depicted above the inscription.
[ back ] 16. For a survey of themes, see also Chaniotis 2000:166.
[ back ] 17. Cole 1993 observes a marked contrast in this respect between the early gold tablets (see below) and later public inscriptions on stone.
[ back ] 18. Although I cite the epigrams with their AB numeration, I give the text of the editio princeps. All translations by the author except where otherwise stated.
[ back ] 19. See Foley 1994:61, figure 4.
[ back ] 20. BG 158 (with parallels); in Merkelbach-Stauber 2001b:14/07/06 the Κόρης τε θεᾶς πρόπολοι καὶ Διονύσου (l.14f) join the parents of the deceased in mourning.
[ back ] 21. The editors do not necessarily see her as an Attic woman but point out that mysteries of Kore, Demeter, and Triptolemus existed also in other places. The Eleusinia in Alexandria were not necessarily a festival that included mysteries, therefore I would argue for an initiation at Eleusis; this does not, however, mean that Nicostrate was an Attic woman.
[ back ] 22. Herrmann 1998, no.457.
[ back ] 23. Cf. Plutarch Mulierum Virtutes 13.
[ back ] 24. Note in particular the expression πρὸ πόλεως, which alludes to the fact that the Bacchic rites were performed outside the city—the term occurs frequently in that context and meaning—but which in this case shows the priestess’s important role within civic life. See Henrichs 1990.
[ back ] 25. For Bacchic evidence from Macedonia, see Gioure 1978; for evidence from Pella, see also below.
[ back ] 26. Polyaenus IV 1; cf. also Herodotus VIII 137f.
[ back ] 27. Plutarch Alexander 2f.
[ back ] 28. Cf. Laks and Most 1997 where previous bibliography is cited.
[ back ] 29. SH 705.
[ back ] 30. G IX 12 17. 24 (263/2 BCE).
[ back ] 31. FdD III 192. 9f (273/2 BCE).
[ back ] 32. Cf. Dickie 1995; Dickie 1998; Rossi 1996.
[ back ] 33. Dickie 1995:81; Lilimbake-Akamate 1992:91–101.
[ back ] 34. For texts and commentary, see Riedweg 1998.
[ back ] 35. See Graf 1993.
[ back ] 36. Riedweg 1998:P(elinna) 1–2, ll 1f (= IIB 3–4 Pugliese Caratelli; end of fourth century BCE).
[ back ] 37. AB 2002 include the leaf in their list of testimonia and take up Dickie’s suggestion that the initiate might have been Posidippus’ grandfather.
[ back ] 38. We cannot be entirely sure that this poem should be attributed to Posidippus but most scholars do see it as an autobiographical statement of our poet.
[ back ] 39. SH 705.1–6.
[ back ] 40. SH 705.21–23.
[ back ] 41. Translated by Gutzwiller 1998:153–154.
[ back ] 42. Lloyd-Jones 1963.
[ back ] 43. See the publications by Dickie 1995 and Rossi 1996 for—in my view convincing—arguments.
[ back ] 44. Bing 2002c argues that inscribed epitaphs up through the early Hellenistic period were read only by exceptional persons and that wide reading of inscriptions did not develop until epigram became a genre composed or collected for the book. I do not agree with Bing’s emphasis on a radical indifference towards inscribed texts, but would argue that it was precisely the deep familiarity with epitaphs that made the development of the genre possible.
[ back ] 45. Cf. Rossi 2001:21.