Poetry as Initiation: The Center for Hellenic Studies Symposium on the Derveni Papyrus

  Papadopoulou, Ioanna, and Leonard Muellner, eds. 2014. Poetry as Initiation: The Center for Hellenic Studies Symposium on the Derveni Papyrus. Hellenic Studies Series 63. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_PapadopoulouI_MuellnerL_eds.Poetry_as_Initiation.2014.

Chapter 10. “Riddles over Riddles”: “Mysterious” and “Symbolic” (Inter)textual Strategies: The Problem of Language in the Derveni Papyrus

Anton Bierl

University of Basel

1. Introduction

My contribution will focus on several important questions that are essential for understanding the Derveni Papyrus as a whole: (1) What are the exegetical methods of the Derveni author? (2) What is the importance of the riddling and how is it linked to the allegorical method? (3) What is the point of view of the Derveni author—is he an anti-Orphic who applies a radical, natural scientific allegoresis to a canonical Orphic text, or is he himself part of the Orphic {187|188} movement? If the latter, in what way? (4) Further, does Presocratic thinking about nature have anything to do with Orphic thinking? (5) Does the text provide proof for the view of Wilhelm Nestle and many others who plead for a clear-cut progression from μῦθος to λόγος, [4] or does it give any evidence that such an evolutionary process has to be modified to accommodate interpenetration between these discourses? [5] Glenn Most’s work is essential for me in this regard. [6] I am also indebted to a recent article by Spyridon Rangos and the work of others who have explored the hermeneutical strategies of the Derveni author. [7] Until recently, following the revision of the evolutionist view of the progression from μῦθος to λόγος, it had become almost the opinio communis that the Derveni author was somehow linked to Orphism and at least influenced by religious thoughts and practices. [8] The volume edited by André Laks and Glenn Most had a big impact on this view, [9] and Betegh encapsulates it in his first book-length study on the Derveni Papyrus. However, there have always been voices against such an opinion: some scholars have argued that the Derveni author was an anti-Orphic and natural scientist radically opposed to such obscure mystic thinking. [10] With his line-by-line commentary in the authoritative edition of KPT Kouremenos now strongly sides with the latter group and seems to tip the scales. My contribution is meant to counterbalance such an argument and to give a nuanced pro-Orphic interpretation.

The entire debate is also connected to the problem of how to link columns 1–6 to the allegorical reading of a theogony of Orpheus in the rest of the text. [11] Formerly the text was called a Presocratic allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem, written from a strong perspective of natural science. [12] However, it seems that this cannot be the whole story. Michael Frede has recently pointed out that the author is not really interested in an overall scientific interpretation. [13] The entire apparatus of Presocratic science elaborated in an eclectic way is rather underdeveloped. What might then be the intention of the author and the context of the primary recipient? Like many critics I am convinced that it must {188|189} somehow have to do with the ritual columns. I strongly believe that the Derveni author is a reform Orphic, as Most has put it. [14] The we-form of the first-person plural πάριμεν in col. 5.4 speaks in favor of this opinion. [15] But does the appropriation of the Orphic text only function as a statement against the fear of the “Fire next time,” in a ritual soteriological and burial context, the primary Sitz im Leben? [16] Betegh seems to be on the right path in associating the ritual passages with the δρώμενα, and the exegetical passage then with the λεγόμενα in the sense of a ἱερὸς λόγος. [17] And Rangos makes a very good point in underlining the obfuscating quality of the text in order to make evident the latent nuances. [18]

2. The Derveni Author, a Riddling Orpheotelestes?

Initiation and soteriology do not necessarily possess only metaphoric value for abstract philosophy. Insight into nature and the cosmos is still intrinsically {189|190} associated with wisdom in general and with eschatology, a realm of knowledge concerned with the afterlife of the soul. [22] Heraclitus himself, whom our author cites (DK 22 B 3 and 94, in col. 4), uses a dark, aphoristic prose that reflects the grounding of his thought in death. [23] Language and play with linguistic elements are part of his philosophical thinking, which aims at triggering a lightning-like intuition. [24] Other authors and forms display language play as well: the αἶνος, a story with a deeper meaning behind the surface, [25] achieves its effect through the use of defamiliarized, strange, and riddling language (αἰνίγματα); Anaximander produces a rather poetic prose full of metaphors; [26] Parmenides seems to be based on mystical insights. [27] Peter Kingsley has aptly demonstrated the ways in which both Parmenides and Empedocles are deeply involved in the religious discourse of mystery cults in Magna Graecia. [28] Empedocles poses as a god, μάντις, prophet, and healer who teaches with an oracular language that involves nature and the future of the soul. [29] Thus his style is strange, poetic, and dark. Like Heraclitus, he uses paretymologies; furthermore, he applies polyptota, metaphors, metonymies, and kennings—he breaks loose the bond between signifier and signified and employs new, defamiliarized forms and vocabulary. Empedocles’ poetical and “studied ambiguity” produces an alienating style that makes the recipient “stop thinking at the right moment” in order to reach the sudden, mystical insight. [30] Parmenides embeds his view on φύσις and cosmogony in poetry and in a mystical journey through the elements. Empedocles seems, as Andreas Willi, among others, points out, to resort to a divine language, which is typical of Indo-European culture. [31] For him, the problem of communication and knowledge seems to lie in naming as a means of human designation. Human beings notoriously err in their use of language, but by reverting to another, higher language, closer to the putative origin, the recipient can reach higher knowledge. This is part of the initiation into mystery cults like Orphism, where the initiands are directed by ἱεροὶ and riddling λόγοι, by συνθήματα and σύμβολα to higher cognition. Whereas the thoughts of men are led astray by faulty naming, gods and divine authorities like Orpheus possess {190|191} the true language, which is located in the realm of θέμις, divine order. In other words, the denotations of men are only θέσις or νόμος, while the true content is pure φύσις. [32]

3. The Method of the Derveni Author: Inclusion and Exclusion as Principles of Understanding in Initiatory Contexts

First I would like to look at column 7:

          ..ὕ]μνον̣ [ὑγ]ι̣ῆ καὶ θεμ[ι]τ̣ὰ λέγο[ντα· ἱερουργεῖ]τ̣ο γὰρ
          [τῆ]ι ποήσει. [κ]αὶ εἰπεῖν οὐχ οἷόν τ[ε τὴν τῶν ὀ]νομάτων
          [λύ]σιν καίτ[οι] ῥηθέντα. ἔστι δὲ ξ̣[ένη τις ἡ] πόησις
5        [κ]α̣ὶ ἀνθρώ[ποις] αἰνι̣[γμ]ατώδης, [κε]ἰ [Ὀρφεὺ]ς̣ αὐτ[ὸ]ς̣
          [ἐ]ρίστ’ αἰν[ίγμα]τα οὐ̣κ ἤ̣θελε λέγειν, [ἐν αἰν]ίγμασ̣[ι]ν δὲ
          [μεγ]άλα̣. ἱερ[ολογ]ε̣ῖ̣ται μὲν οὖν καὶ ἀ̣[πὸ το]ῦ πρώτου
          [ἀεὶ] μέχρι οὗ̣ [τελε]υτ̣α̣ί̣ου ῥήματος. ὡ̣[ς δηλοῖ] καὶ ἐν τῶι
          [εὐκ]ρινήτω̣[ι ἔπει· “θ]ύ̣ρ̣ας” γὰρ “ἐπιθέ[σθαι” κελ]εύσας τοῖ̣[ς]
10       [“ὠσὶ]ν” αὐτ[οὺς οὔτι νομο]θ̣ε̣τ̣εῖν φη[σιν τοῖς] πολλοῖς̣
                                    τὴ]ν ἀκοὴν [ἁγνεύο]ντας κατ̣[ὰ]
                                       ]ωι τ[..]εγ.[…]..[
                              ἐν δ]ὲ τῶι ἐχ̣ομ[έ]ν̣ωι πα[
15                                                  ].τ̣..ε̣ι̣γ.[.]κ̣ατ̣[


The poem of Orpheus is strange because it defamiliarizes, deestablishes, fixed meanings; it loosens the link between signified and the signifier and occupies a zonal territory in between. To an average audience, therefore, it seems to be a riddling, enigmatic work. Yet Orpheus does not intend to use this technique for contentious purposes, or to show off in a rhetoric ἀγών. No, according to the Derveni author Orpheus wants to say great things in riddles, that is, he wants to help the initiated, the μύσται, to grasp the circumstances of nature and the cosmos, the quintessential message of Orphic and/or mystery cult in general. The Derveni author can prove this with Orpheus’ standard entrance verse, which is characteristic of mysteries:

ἀείσω ξυνετοῖσι· θύρας δ’ ἐπίθεσθε, βέβηλοι
φθέγξομαι οἷς θέμις ἐστί· θύρας δ’ ἐπίθεσθε, βέβηλοι

OF 1 and 3

Orpheus, as well as the Derveni author, has the key. The entrance formula reflects the standard notion of mystic exclusion and inclusion. The initiated and “pure in hearing” are included—they, as μύσται, are able to hear and learn what is divine law, θέμις. To “put doors to the ears” means to exclude the others, the profane or βέβηλοι. The door stands for the barrier between inside and outside, and the image associates hearing with special access. Thus the sacred space of the sanctuary is metonymically shifted to the private space of the auditory canal of the τελεστής or μύστης. The formula mirrors the central verb μύω, which designates the act of listening to an authoritative voice of θέμις as well as the signal to keep the mouth and ears shut. [
35] The initiated should open their {192|193} ears and eyes so that they can experience the sacred message; the masses must be kept outside. The imperative suggests the drawing of a boundary around a zonal space where the truth of φύσις becomes evident, but in latent and enigmatic terms. The word βέβηλοι comes from βαίνω; the uninitiated masses have to go, to keep away from the closed doors that shut up the inner space of their ears. By employing the formula the author says that Orpheus is not “legislating” (νομο]θ̣ε̣τ̣εῖν, 7.10) for the many—i.e. using the style of νόμοι and θέσις to express what is merely conventional signification—but addressing his poem to the “pure in hearing,” who have access to the special and marked space and who are allowed to hear what is divine and, thus, the essence of φύσις.

With new riddles the Derveni author then tries to tease out deeper meaning: the authoritative meaning of αἶνος is hidden and has to be made manifest. However, the author does not convey this meaning in an evident sense, but adds a second enigmatic layer. The reason Orpheus riddles, according to the Derveni author, is to comply with the taste of the recipients, ordinary men who like to give names. Compare the following expressions: Ὀρφεὺς γὰ`ρ´ / τὴν φρόνησ[ι]ν Μοῖραν ἐκάλ̣εσεν· ἐφαίνετο γὰρ αὐτῶι / τοῦτο προσφερέστατον ε[ἶ]ν̣αι ἐ̣ξ̣ ὧν ἅπαντες ἄνθρωποι / ὠνόμασαν· (“For Orpheus called thought Moira. This seemed to him to be the most suitable of the names that all people had given,” 18.6–9); πάν̣[τ’ οὖ]ν ὁμοίω[ς ὠ]νόμασεν ὡς κ̣άλλιστα ἠ[δύ]ν̣ατο / γινώσκ̣ων τῶν ἀνθρώπων τὴν φύσιν (“So he named all things in the same way as finely as he could, knowing the nature of men …,” 22.1–2); and ὁ δὲ σημαίνει τὴν αὑτοῦ γνώμην / ἐν τοῖς λεγομέν[ο]ις καὶ νομιζομένοις ῥήμασι (“But he indicates his own opinion in current and customary expressions,” 23.7–8). Even an initiated audience, according to Orpheus, thinks in customary ways. People are used to mythical figures in theogonic poems. Thus, the Derveni author argues, Orpheus clothes his ideas in such traditional figures with a putatively different intention.

If, as Parmenides and Empedocles say, naming is the great problem of mankind—with ὀνόματα people might reach false conclusions—a poet needs poetic metaphors to meet the taste of his audience. In Rhetoric 1407a32–1407b6 Aristotle criticizes Empedocles (Emp. test. 31 A 25) for his ambiguities—ἀμφίβολα is a feature of oracular language—and in Meteorologica 357a24–28 he assails him for his metaphorical style, which is apt for poets, but not suitable πρὸς δὲ τὸ γνῶναι τὴν φύσιν. Therefore, according to Aristotle, Empedocles lacks the principle of clarity that should accompany a philosopher, something which might also be said of Orpheus. But a goetic and mystical wonder-worker and μάντις-poet resorts to metaphors in order to provoke thinking. Intentional ambiguity is used to reach intuitive insights. The Derveni author is part of the Orphic system, too—he wants to radicalize and enforce such riddling strategies. {193|194}

4. The Cognitive and Didactic Purpose and the Derveni Author as a Figure between Philosopher and Orphic Wisdom Practitioner

The Orphic group and rival “extra-ordinary” practitioners honor the Erinyes with χοαί and something birdlike, since souls are compared to birds (col. 6)—like goes to like—and all is fitted to music and musical performance, poetry (col. 2). The chthonic Erinyes, as avengers, are assistants of the Olympic gods and guarantors of the current cosmos and Zeus’ system of δίκη (col. 3). Binary oppositions can be subverted; what harms can also help to maintain order. The author cites Heraclitus fragments 3 and 94, on the sun and its tendency to overstep boundaries and on the role of the Erinyes, Δίκης ἐπίκουροι, who hunt down transgressors (col. 4). The word ὑπερβατόν (4.10) is the verbal adjective for violating the limits of the cosmic order as well as the terminus technicus for suspending the syntactical standard order and sense (cf. 8.6). [41] {194|195} Column 5 deals with the terrors of Hades, and with the disbelievers: “For them we go into oracular shrines to inquire for oracular answers” (αὐ̣τοῖς πάριμεν̣ [εἰς τὸ μα]ν̣τεῖον ἐπερ̣[ω]τ̣ήσ̣[οντες], / τῶν μαντευομένω̣ν̣ [ἕν]εκεν, 5.4–5). The uninitiated are afraid of the horrors of the underworld because they do not have access to the truth. Dream interpretation, however, yields a deeper knowledge in the same way that oracular language does. Both are ambiguous and seem to be lacking in logic, both move on metonymies and metaphors, and both provide signs, σήματα or παραδείγματα (5.8), in a loose and ambivalent structure. In this respect one can compare Heraclitus, who says of the Delphic oracle: Ὁ ἄναξ, οὗ τὸ μαντεῖόν ἐστι τὸ ἐν Δελφοῖς, οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει ἀλλὰ σημαίνει (fr. 93 DK).

The use of cryptic and enigmatic language in the way of an exegesis of dreams and oracles is precisely the strategy adopted by our anonymous “extra-ordinary” practitioner to produce deeper insight. But our author is aware of the fact that, because of “fault” (ἁμαρτίη) or “pleasure” (ἡδονή) (5.8–10), some do not apprehend dreams or care about latent signs. These undesirable behaviors result in “disbelief” (ἀπιστίη) and “lack of understanding” (ἀμαθίη) (5.10). Moreover, moral aberration is analogous to the deviation from initiatory wisdom. Ritual acts and enchanting songs allow μάγοι like him to remove the impeding δαίμονες: “As if they pay a penalty” (ὡ̣σ̣περεὶ ποινὴν̣ ἀποδιδόντες, 6.5), they offer a sacrifice (see column 6). Μάγοι, in the same way as μύσται, communicate with the Erinyes through fluids and knobbed cakes. The performance of ritual and speech acts can accomplish diametrical change: in such a way, Erinyes, who harm, become Eumenides, who are emblematically benevolent (see col. 6), and disbelievers can be turned into believers. Analogy and symbolic similarity are the principal ideas behind such thinking and doing, and they are the features of exegetical speech as well.

The Derveni author clarifies his standpoint in a sort of parenthesis in column 20: for him the performance of rites is important, but it has to be complemented by knowledge. People performing the mystery rites in the cities have only seen the holy things. But he wonders whether they have knowledge (γινώσκειν): “For it is not possible to hear and at the same time to understand what is being said” (οὐ γὰρ οἷόν τε / ἀκοῦσαι ὁμοῦ καὶ μαθεῖν τὰ λ̣εγόμενα·, 20.2–3). Mere listening does not automatically lead to understanding, which is why he tries to deepen the discourse with new riddling that leads to learning and sudden insight. Seeing the holy things is one thing, and true knowledge of such signs another. Therefore, the Derveni author is against other rival priests and ritual wonder-workers as well, and he pities those who follow them. Only he has access to the necessary wisdom, and only he can teach it. {195|196}

5. Learning about Physis through Fragmentation and Playing with the Orphic Text

6. The Presocratic and Orphic System of Physis

On the level of textual montage, as we have seen, the Derveni author acts on separation and reassembly, fragmenting and connecting as well. Column 10, where the author assimilates saying, uttering, and teaching, is important for {197|198} assembly in a didactic context. In the same way that Orpheus’ Night utters, says, and teaches her understanding of the world, so too does our anonymous Orphic. By disjoining the sense and defamiliarizing the syntax and context, the Derveni author provides συνθήματα as sayings; in uttering them with his voice (φωνή) he produces poetic enchantment. The dual-natured Orphic system, the paradoxical harmony of binary opposites, is reinforced by teaching through fragmented citations. The symbolic catchwords then trigger the desired sudden, enlightening insight.

The arcane, chthonic, and mysterious are here as important as the evident. Life is grounded in death and Night, who serves as “nurse” (τροφός, 10.11). Night has knowledge and proclaims her oracle from the innermost shrine (ἐξ ἀδύτοιο), where she is “never setting” (ἄδυτον, col. 11). Night does not set as φῶς, but rather remains in the same place after being struck by a beaming light. Parmenides discusses the same dual system of light and night:

μορφὰς γὰρ κατέθεντο δύο γνώμας ὀνομάζειν·
τῶν μίαν οὐ χρεών ἐστιν—ἐν ὧι πεπλανημένοι εἰσίν—
55τἀντία δ’ ἐκρίναντο δέμας καὶ σήματ’ ἔθεντο
χωρὶς ἀπ’ ἀλλήλων, τῆι μὲν φλογὸς αἰθέριον πῦρ,
ἤπιον ὄν, μέγ’ [ἀραιὸν] ἐλαφρόν, ἑωυτῶι πάντοσε τωὐτόν,
τῶι δ’ ἑτέρωι μὴ τωὐτόν· ἀτὰρ κἀκεῖνο κατ’ αὐτό
τἀντία νύκτ’ ἀδαῆ, πυκινὸν δέμας ἐμβριθές τε.
60τόν σοι ἐγὼ διάκοσμον ἐοικότα πάντα φατίζω,
ὡς οὐ μή ποτέ τίς σε βροτῶν γνώμη παρελάσσηι.

fr. 8, 52–61

And Parmenides continues:

αὐτὰρ ἐπειδὴ πάντα φάος καὶ νὺξ ὀνόμασται
5καὶ τὰ κατὰ σφετέρας δυνάμεις ἐπὶ τοῖσί τε καὶ τοῖς {198|199}
πᾶν πλέον ἐστὶν ὁμοῦ φάεος καὶ νυκτὸς ἀφάντου
ἴσων ἀμφοτέρων, ἐπεὶ οὐδετέρωι μέτα μηδέν.

Now that all things have been named light and night; and the things which belong to the power of each have been assigned to these things and to those, everything is full at once of light and dark night, both equal, since neither has aught to do with the other.

fr. 9

Night has the identical σήματα of Being as light, since neither can be said to be Nothing. To name one alone, as if it were only the negative opposite, is fallacious. [
48] Night is unconscious—as the lightweight and mild light she is self-identical—and possesses material substance. The decisive knowledge stems from the subconscious, oracular and dreamlike (see col. 5). Night resides in a sacred shrine because she has an oracular status and because, as paretymologically explained, she does not set. For this etymological play one might compare Heraclitus fr. 16 DK: τὸ μὴ δῦνόν ποτε πῶς ἄν τις λάθοι; (“How could anyone not realize that which never sets?”). Thus human beings, at least the initiated ones, have to deal with and refer to Night, Hades, and Death. In this formulation, Night becomes the basis of life. The Orphic bone tablets of Olbia testify: ΒΙΟΣ ΘΑΝΑΤΟΣ ΒΙΟΣ (“Life–Death–Life,” OF 463). People, or at least mantic priests, γόητες and μάγοι, must initiate ritual contact with Night to appease her horror and bring forth benevolence, wealth, blessings, and knowledge.

7. Going through the Theogony

Let us have a look at how the Derveni author delineates this development, picking out fragmented verses—the fragmentary use does not imply, as West and other critics have argued, that according to the logic of a stemma we can reconstruct an abridged Derveni theogony as a lineage of an Orphic Protogonos theogony: [53]

“Ζεὺς μὲν ἐπεὶ δὴ π̣α̣[τρὸς ἑο]ῦ πάρα θέ[σ]φατον ἀρχὴν
[ἀ]λκήν τ’ ἐν χείρεσσι ἔ[λ]αβ[εν κ]α̣[ὶ] δαίμον[α] κυδρόν.”

“And when Zeus took from his father the prophesied rule
And the strength in his hands and the glorious daimon.”


Truth is again brought about by linguistic means, by loosening the syntax, the grammatical order. The Derveni author claims: “It has escaped notice that {200|201} these words are transposed” ([τ]α̣ῦτα τὰ ἔπη ὑπερβατὰ ἐό[ν]τ̣α λανθάν̣[ει·], 8.6). ὑπερβατά—the putative transgression—lies in the use of language. This syntactical transposition has to be restored to the correct order, just as the sun must be returned to normal δίκη by the Erinyes when it oversteps its boundaries (see col. 4). The decisive words are πατρὸς ἑοῦ and πάρα; if πάρα is not in anastrophe, it does not go with the genitive “from his father” but with the accusative “contrary to divine decrees”—πα̣ρὰ̣ θέσφατα (8.11). Our author points at a morally dangerous poetic and syntactical ambivalence. Thus he purifies it by reinstalling a clear reference, and he reads: “Zeus, when he took the strength from his father and the glorious daimon” (Ζεὺς μὲν ἐπεὶ τὴ̣[ν ἀλ]κ̣ὴν / [πα]ρὰ πατρὸς ἑοῦ ἔλαβεν καὶ δαίμονα [κυδρ]όν, 8.7–8).

The Orphic exegete does not want to draw on variants of the saga in which Zeus listens to his father. For him the fact that Zeus took the strength is decisive. He understands “strength” in the sense of “a natural force”: strength automatically joins with the strongest, as in the phrase “equal with equal” (ὅμοιον ὁμοίῳ). The author tries to play down the revolutionary, violent act of succession as much as possible; in his own reading he leaves out ἀρχὴν in its sense of “reign, regime.” Those who do not understand the meaning of the word associate it with a real deposition of sovereigns. In reality it means removing the fire, the partitioning of the sun at a safe distance so that it does not hinder things from coagulating and coming together (see col. 9). Zeus is installed “so that he may rule on the lovely abode of snow-capped Olympus” (ὡς ἂν̣ ἔ̣[χοι κά]τα καλὸν ἕδ̣ος νιφόεντος Ὀλύμπου, 12.2). Surprisingly, he associates Olympus with time, not with heaven, because time is long. Zeus rules for eternity, over the long span of temporal extension. Time is snow-capped because it has the quality of Night, who is white, cool, gray, and bright (12.11–13).

The sentence “[He made] to leap, the brightest and hottest having been separated from himself” ([ἐ]κθό̣ρηι τὸν λαμ̣πρότατόν τε [καὶ θε]ρ̣μ̣ό[τ]ατον / χωρισθὲν ἀφ’ ἑωυτοῦ, 14.1–2) might again depict the mythical ejaculation, focusing on the energy of semen. Moreover, the dissociation of the hottest, i.e. phallos/sun, from himself is an allusion to the famous castration in prospect, since Ouranos is deprived of his phallos: “So he says that this Kronos was born from the sun to the earth because he became the cause through the sun that they were struck against each other” (τοῦτον οὖν τὸν Κρόνον / γενέσθαι φησὶν ἐκ τ̣οῦ ἡλίου τῆι Γ̣ῆι, ὅτι αἰτίαν ἔσχε / διὰ τὸν ἥλιον κρούεσθαι πρὸς ἄλλ̣ηλα, 14.2–4). “The great deed” (ὃς μ̣έγ’ ἔρεξεν, 14.5) is the castration. Kronos is born from the union of Sun/Ouranos’ phallos with Ge—through the sun he becomes the cause (αἰτίαν ἔσχε, 14.3) setting all things in motion. Kronos is etymologized to κρούειν/κρούεσθαι {202|203} ‘strike’. After Ouranos is dethroned by castration, Kronos is established as the natural force, albeit retrospectively, by his great deed. He is the “Striker,” but the energy stems from the cutting off of his father’s phallos—the removal, as a means of distancing, is the act of concentrating fire’s loose energy in the ball of Helios: this is how the sun comes to give the energy that all things draw from in order to grow and move. Encircling the striking energy allows things to condense and prevents them from standing apart from one another (cf. κρο̣ύε<i>ν αὐτὰ πρὸ̣[ς ἄλ]λ̣ηλα κα̣[ὶ] ποήσηι τὸ [πρῶτ]ον / χωρ̣ισθέντα διασ̣τῆναι δίχ’ ἀλλήλων τὰ ἐ̣ό̣ντα·, 15.1–2). “For when the sun is separated and encircled/distanced, he coagulated in the middle and held fast both the things that are above and those which are below the sun” (χωρ̣[ι]ζομένου γὰρ τοῦ ἡλίου καὶ ἀπολαμβανομένου / ἐν μ̣έσωι πήξας ἴσχει καὶ τἄνωθε τοῦ ἡλίου / καὶ τὰ κάτωθεν, 15.3–5). Nous—that is, Zeus, the highest principle—fixed the sun in the middle, removing its dangerous potential to a safe distance so that fire would not prevent things from joining (cf. col. 9).

Even in the first generation Ouranos/Sky is only retrospectively produced by the action of ejaculating aither into the sky. In column 16 the citation says: {203|204}

Πρωτογόνου βασιλέως αἰδοίου· τῶι δ’ ἄρα πάντες
ἀθάνατ̣οι προσέφυν μάκαρες θεοὶ ἠδ̣ὲ θέαιναι
5καὶ ποταμοὶ καὶ κρῆναι ἐπήρατοι ἄλ̣λα τε πάντα,
ἅ̣σσα τότ’ ἦν γεγαῶτ’, αὐτὸς δ’ ἄρα μοῦνος ἔγεντο.

with the phallus of the first-born king [i.e. Ouranos, not Phanes-Protogonos], upon which all
the immortals grew, blessed gods and goddesses
and rivers and lovely springs and everything else
that had been born then; and he himself became solitary.


When Mind (Nous/Zeus) swallows the phallos, which is solitary and separated, Sun and Mind become separated and are then alone. But from this cosmos everything grows; by means of this solitary Mind, Zeus plans/contrives (ἐμήσατο, 23.4) the entirety of life (τὸν Ζᾶνα, 23.4). In the naming lies the problem, [
61] because all is in existence before it is named. [62] Men believe in birth and temporal succession by attaching different names (see col. 17), but in reality all that has ever been and all gods are constituted in Zeus. Air is Zeus; Ouranos and Kronos are Zeus, who is therefore head (i.e. beginning), middle, and end. From Zeus all things have their being (col. 17); therefore, the text culminates in the brief “hymn to Zeus”: “Zeus the head, Zeus the middle, and from Zeus all things are fashioned” (Ζεὺς κεφα[λή, Ζεὺς μέσ]σ̣α̣, Διὸς δ’ ἐκ̣ [π]άντα τέτ̣[υκται], 17.12). [63]

By “mating” Orpheus putatively means the congress of the particles of being: similar goes to similar—ὅμοιον ὁμοίῳ. Aphrodite, Peitho, and Harmonia are the κατὰ φάτιν (21.8–9) designations of mixing, gathering, and joining (col. 21). The many names for Ge are names of convention as well, which make sense etymologically (col. 22). Through greed, moral deviations, and lack of understanding (22.6), people use this plethora of different names—but in reality they all mean the same thing. {204|205}

Then the author speaks about the moon (cols. 24–25). It is circular, equally measured, and of equal limbs. Orpheus calls the moon the one “who shines for many articulate-speaking humans on the boundless earth” (ἣ πολλοῖς φαίνει μερόπεσσι ἐπ’ ἀπείρονα γαῖαν, 24.3). One could disagree with this, since the moon might shine more at her zenith (ὑπερβάλλειν, 24.4–6). However, this is not Orpheus’ meaning. According to the author, the phrase alludes to the moon’s role in time-keeping. He comes back to the two important principles of the sun and night (col. 25): the moon is bright, but cold; the stars are invisible and latent, but during the night they are visible and manifest themselves. They float at a certain distance, but this is out of a cosmic necessity, i.e. Nous or Zeus. Without the distance, another sun would coagulate. But there is only one sun.

At this point the author inserts an additional methodological statement: “And the words that follow he puts before [as a screen], not wishing all men to understand” (τὰ δ̣’ ἐ̣πὶ τούτοις ἐπίπροσθε π[ο]ιεῖται / [οὐ β]ου[λό]μενο̣[ς] πάντας γιν[ώ]σκε̣[ι]ν̣, 25.12–13). Orpheus uses poetic expressions to conceal the meaning, and the author tries to reveal it. At the same time, by using new terms, he covers the truth with new screens.

8. Conclusion

By bizarrely riddling over an Orphic text, which is itself putatively riddling but quite traditional, the Derveni author introduces a radical Umwertung of values and meanings. The μεθιστάναι (6.3) happens both through ritual and through speech-acts; that which is latent is highlighted by obscurely spoken words. Through both fragmented and decontextualized sentences the sense is distorted, twisted, and changed.

What our author intends to convey with such enigmatic utterances often remains uncertain: it is not a clear-cut and lucid commentary in terms of {206|207} Presocratic natural science. But by means of abstruse remarks, some light can be shed on the basic mechanisms of φύσις ‘nature’. Physis as eternal cosmic being is a miracle. People tend to err because of incorrect names (ὀνόματα), since the language of φύσις or the gods is basically lost. However, φύσις and κόσμος speak for themselves. Human language, on the contrary, is not φύσει, but νόμῳ, by convention, or θέσει. Yet some great poets and guru-prophets might still have access to pure φύσις and physical language, though they may make concessions to the audience and their tastes. Furthermore, the cosmos, sun, moon, and stars are also part of the soteriological reflections. By understanding φύσις people can reach deep insights about life, including its basis in night and death.

Our Derveni author seems to be an Orphic with philosophical knowledge. He is neither inept and clumsy nor unintelligent. He is certainly not a modern scientist, but he wants to trigger reflection and deep thoughts on the paradoxical workings of nature. Insight is activated by short and bizarre distortions of sense. Therefore, the Orphic poem is treated as an oracular message from the dark. Deeper meaning is teased out by further riddling, by fragmentation, by a loosening of syntactic and semantic order, by highlighting poetic ambiguity, by opening up the nuances. The canonical text is decontextualized, cut to pieces, and fragmented into defamiliarized morsels of words. Just as συνθήματα unite opposites to a paradoxical utterance, nature encompasses two principles: separation and reassembly. The aphoristic, obscure oracular mode à la Heraclitus paves the path to sudden insight. The συμβάλλειν of fragmented words, the dark re-transpositions of παραγωγά, ὑπερβατά, the distortions of sense and structure, and the poetic and magic logic of analogy initiate understanding. Through these games of language the mystic sense of φύσις can flare up like a sudden bolt.

All in all, the context of the Derveni papyrus is clearly didactic, and the text does seem to be situated in Orphic circles and its teachings. However, according to the enlightening ideas of its author, it is not enough to perform Orphic rites, to listen to ἱεροὶ λόγοι, or to see σύμβολα ‘sacred things’. While the λεγόμενα and ὁρώμενα should provoke thought, insight, and understanding, the message that the text offers to μύσται can be grasped not by means of logocentric discourse, but only through its hints at the mysteries of φύσις. These are the mysteries I refer to as “riddles over riddles.” {207|}


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[ back ] 1. Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou 2006 (= KPT). See also the useful commentary by Jourdan (2003). In this article I quote the KPT editio princeps.

[ back ] 2. Bernabé 2007a:169–269. See also the interim text with a good apparatus by Janko (2002).

[ back ] 3. Betegh 2004.

[ back ] 4. Nestle 1940. For the P.Derv., see e.g. Burkert 1968.

[ back ] 5. Most 1997 and in general Most 1999.

[ back ] 6. Most 1997 and Most 1999. See also Laks and Most 1997.

[ back ] 7. Rangos (2007) has worked along similar lines, though I began to think about this independently before. See also Henry 1986 and Sistakou and Calame in this volume.

[ back ] 8. E.g. West 1983:68–115; West 1997; and the work of Burkert, in particular Burkert 1999:59–86, esp. 78–86; Burkert 2006; Bernabé 2007b.

[ back ] 9. Laks and Most 1997.

[ back ] 10. E.g. Henrichs 1984, esp. 255; Rusten 1985:140; Casadio 1987:386; Janko 1997; Janko 2001:6: “sophist” (but also “at once a sophistical Orphic and an Orphic sophist” [5]); KPT 52.

[ back ] 11. See Johnston, Graf, Bernabé in this volume.

[ back ] 12. E.g. Burkert 1968; Janko 2001:1–6.

[ back ] 13. Frede 2007, esp. 9–12.

[ back ] 14. Most 1997:122–124.

[ back ] 15. πάριμεν̣ [εἰς τὸ μα]ν̣τεῖον ἐπερ̣[ω]τ̣ήσ̣[οντες] (“we enter the oracle in order to ask,” 5.4).

[ back ] 16. Most 1997, with “we” at 120. However, see Burkert in this volume, suggesting that πάριμεν is an infinitive.

[ back ] 17. Betegh 2004, esp. 349–359; the Derveni author designates the poem as hymnos (7.2). For hymn as unmarked term for an epic poem in its performance, see Nagy 1990:353n77. Often there is a cyclical logic. For hieroi logoi, see Henrichs 2003; he is skeptical about applying this term to the P.Derv .: see pp. 213–214, 232–233.

[ back ] 18. Rangos 2007. See also Betegh 2004:364–370.

[ back ] 19. See 7.5–6, 9.10, 10.11, 13.6, 17.13.

[ back ] 20. Rusten 1985:122; West 1983:79.

[ back ] 21. See the literature cited in Bierl 2007:45n254; Gemelli Marciano 2008.

[ back ] 22. See Seaford 1986.

[ back ] 23. Thurner 2001.

[ back ] 24. See e.g. Schefer 2000; Bremer 1990. On Heraclitus and P.Derv., see Seaford 1986 and Sider 1997.

[ back ] 25. Nagy 1979:235–241, esp. 240; Nagy 1990:31.

[ back ] 26. Simplicius De physica 24.20–21: ποιητικωτέροις οὕτως ὀνόμασιν αὐτὰ λέγων (DK 12 A 9; after the famous fragment of Anaximander, DK 12 B 1).

[ back ] 27. Gemelli Marciano 2008.

[ back ] 28. Kingsley 1995; Kingsley 1999.

[ back ] 29. Bierl (forthcoming). For these designations regarding the Derveni author, see Tzifopoulos in this volume.

[ back ] 30. Willi 2008:193–229. For the citation, see Millerd 1908:21, referred to at Willi 2008:221.

[ back ] 31. Willi 2008:230–263, esp. 243–254.

[ back ] 32. For Empedocles and the P.Derv. author, see Betegh 2004:370–372.

[ back ] 33. All translations of the P.Derv. are from KTP, from Betegh 2004, or from a combination of them with slight modifications.

[ back ] 34. Cf. Rangos 2007, esp. 70: “He wants it both ways.” Cf. also Most 1997.

[ back ] 35. Nagy 1990:31–32 (with the link to mythos).

[ back ] 36. See Most 1997:131–135.

[ back ] 37. See Calame 1997:77–80; Betegh 2004:360–370; and also Calame and Graf in this volume.

[ back ] 38. For bricolage, see Edmonds 2004:4.

[ back ] 39. See e.g. Bremmer 1991; Burkert 1999:59–86.

[ back ] 40. Edmonds (2008:34–35) rightly stresses that our author has to deal with rivals and so believes him to be a mystes, not a magos. However, I believe that it is in principle possible for him to be a magos, too (see also Edmonds 2008:35n83; Betegh 2004:81–82); much depends on how one interprets the magoi in column 6. The first-person plural in 5.3 might be an indication that he includes himself. On magos, see also Bernabé, Graf, and Johnston in this volume.

[ back ] 41. See Rusten 1985:125n10 (with reference to scholia (A) Iliad 14.1); Jourdan 2003:47n7.

[ back ] 42. Betegh 2004:333–337. See also Rangos 2007:65 on “new syntheses of telestic Orphic myths with cosmogonical and cosmological processes” and 65–67 for σύμβολα.

[ back ] 43. Most 1997:124.

[ back ] 44. And maybe even music; see 2.8: καὶ] ἐ̣π̣έθηκε[ν ὕμνους ἁρμ]οστο[ὺ]ς τῆ̣ι̣ μ̣ουσ̣ι̣κῆι; the subject could be Orpheus himself or a rival Orphic priest.

[ back ] 45. I need only recall sentences like αἰδοῖον κατ̣έπινεν, ὃς αἰθέρα ἔκθορ̣ε πρῶτος (13.4) or Οὐρανὸς Εὐφρονίδης, ὃς πρώτιστο̣ς̣ βασίλευσεν (14.6). Compare also the riddling: Ζεὺς κεφα̣[λή, Ζεὺς μέσ]σ̣α̣, Δ̣ιὸς δ’ ἐ̣κ [π]άντα τέτ̣[υκται (17.12) or Ζεὺς βασιλεύς, Ζεὺς δ’ ἀρχὸς ἁπάντ̣ω̣ν ἀργικέραυνος (19.10).

[ back ] 46. See Burkert 1968; Betegh 2004:278–348; KTP 28–45. Jourdan (2003:xvii–xviii) provides a useful summary of the system.

[ back ] 47. Here I follow Hölscher 1969:27, 104. The translation is after John Burnet, with small changes.

[ back ] 48. Hölscher 1969:103–105. The mistake lies in the duality—in reality both sides belong together in a complementary way.

[ back ] 49. For Parmenides and the Derveni Papyrus, see KPT 32.

[ back ] 50. For the central role of Zeus, see Bernabé 2007b:125–126 (“Thus, he is a kind of harmonization of contradictions [a characterization reminiscent of Heraclitus’ formulation of the divine]” [125]).

[ back ] 51. Burkert 1987:67, 74, 80, 95–96, 104–108, 134n12, 156n44. For the allegoresis on the isotopy of sexuality, see Calame 1997:66–75.

[ back ] 52. For the “flashback device,” see Bernabé 2007b:113–114.

[ back ] 53. West 1983:82–115, esp. 87, 95n44. Bernabé (2007b:126) thinks as well that it was “a brief poem that took for granted the knowledge of other poems.”

[ back ] 54. Burkert 1999:82; Burkert 2006:102–103. For “ejaculate,” see also Jourdan 2003:63.

[ back ] 55. For θόρε resp. θρῴσκω and θόρνυμι in the Orphic-Bacchic gold-leaves, see Tzifopoulos in this volume.

[ back ] 56. Burkert 1999:82; Burkert 2006:101–111; Βernabé 2002:105–112; Βernabé 2007b:107–110; and cf. Betegh 2004:109–122, esp. 113–122.

[ back ] 57. West 1983:85 (cf. 114); KTP 21–28. Brisson 2003 and Jourdan 2003:60–63 are against Burkert’s suggestion and argue for an ambiguous polysemy between the adjective and noun. See Sider in this volume.

[ back ] 58. West 1983:85.

[ back ] 59. Parmenides DK 28 A  37 and B 12.1. In the middle is the daimon who rules everything (B 12.2), comparable to Nous/Zeus.

[ back ] 60. διιστάναι (15.2, 15.9) vs. συνιστάναι (9.6, 10.13, 17.2, 17.8, 17.15, 21.3, 25.9). See also Calame 1997:72–73.

[ back ] 61. For ὄνομα, see 7.3, 17.7, 19.9, 21.7, 22.10, 23.12. For ὀνομάζω, see 12.7, 14.7, 14.9, 17.1, 17.5, 17.7, 18.3, 18.9, 18.12, 21.10, 21.13, 22.1, 22.10. On the naming, see Burkert 1970.

[ back ] 62. π[ρ]ό̣τερον ἦν πρ[ὶν ὀν]ο̣μ̣α̣σ̣θῆνα̣ι̣, ἔ̣π̣[ει]τα ὠ̣νομάσθ̣η· (17.1).

[ back ] 63. For the “hymn to Zeus” (OF 14), see Bernabé 2007b:116–118; for Zeus as center of the poem and highest being, ibid., 125–126.

[ back ] 64. Cf. Heraclitus DK 22 B 64: τὰ δὲ πάντα οἰακίζει Κεραυνός.

[ back ] 65. Discussed by Obbink at the CHS conference. For another explanation—a borrowing from Akkadian înân—see D’Alessio 2004, esp. 23–29.

[ back ] 66. Or Betegh: ἐστ[ὶν τ]ὸ̣ ἐγγε̣[νέσθ]αι.

[ back ] 67. For δῖνος, see Anaxagoras DK 59 A 57; for δίνη, see Empedokles DK 31 B 35.4; B 115.11. At the same time τὰ[ς] δ’ ἶνα[ς could be read as accusative plural of ἲς ‘strength’. See KPT 259–260.

[ back ] 68. See Bernabé 2007b:121–122.

[ back ] 69. For parallels to the practice of early Alexandrian philology and its hypomnema exegesis, see Rusten in this volume.

[ back ] 70. LSJ s.v. ἐύς; ἑός = ἀγαθός; see Apollonios Dyskolos Syntax 213.7–8 Uhlig on Iliad 24.292 and KPT 271 ad loc. and Jourdan 2003:104–105. The play on semantic ambiguity is easier to grasp if we print in 26.2 ἑᾶς (as Jourdan 2003:26 and Betegh 2004:54–55) instead of ἐᾶς (as KPT 113; Janko 2002:52).

[ back ] 71. Only here, in Odyssey 8.325, and in the passage of the Iliad 24.528 do we have the variant with spiritus asper δῶτορ ἑάων. See Hainsworth 1988:369 ad Odyssey 8.325.

[ back ] 72. See also Brügger 2009:189 ad loc.