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 11. Reading the Authorial Strategies in the Derveni Papyrus [1]

Evina Sistakou

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Whatever the generic identity of the Derveni document, it appears to be a far cry from the concept of literariness: it can no more be regarded as “literature” than the Homeric scholia or Aristotle’s treatises, at least in the narrow sense of the word. Yet, as the voice resonating throughout the commentary strikes us with its exceptional clarity and vigor, the fact that the profile of the Derveni author has attracted considerable attention by each and every scholar studying the papyrus should not come as a surprise. In my view, all readings of the author’s voice in the Derveni Papyrus entail, albeit implicitly, the acknowledgment that what we have here is far more than a set of religious/philosophical technicalities on how to understand the Orphic theogony. Design and intention, arrangement and style point towards a conscious, imaginative speaker (or writer) who is well aware of his ability to manipulate his audience by methodically creating his own authorial persona. It is the question of which devices are employed for this purpose that I will be addressing in the present study. {211|212}

1. A Staged Theology?

The spatialization of the mysteries provides the basis for action to unfold, for ritual to be symbolically enacted. As in any ceremony, the action is not connected with a fixed point in time, but instead its repeatedness and duration {213|214} are stressed. Thus, the numerous verbs describing the ritual are set in the present ([χ]έονται, χρησ[τ]ηριάζον[ται, πάριμεν, μ[ειλ]ίσσουσι, π[οιοῦσι[ν], ἐπισπένδουσιν, θύουσιν, προθύουσι). Corresponding to the activities in which the magi and the initiates are regularly engaged, these verbs stress the dramatic present. Dramatization is further reinforced as the commentator provides a detailed record of how these rituals are performed: the libations, the burning of birds, the hymning and the playing of music, the sacrifice, and the offering of water, milk, and cakes set the scene for an almost theatrically enacted ceremony.

2. The Author’s Voices

The underlying premise of this textual world is that it represents the theological and philosophical truth of the Orphic theogony; but, since the revelation of this truth is a question of interpretation, the author, qua interpreter, adopts an overall omniscient voice:

And one cannot state the solution of the [enigmatic] words though they are spoken [i.e. not secret]. This poem is strange and riddling to people though [Orpheus] himself did not intend to say contentious riddles but rather great things in riddles. In fact he is speaking mystically, and from the very first word all the way to the last.

Col. VII.3–8

With regard to the phrase “he took in his hands,” he was allegorizing just as in everything else which formerly seemed uncertain but has been most certainly understood.

Col. IX.10–12

The author’s persona highlights the strange (col. VII.4 ξ[ένη τις ἡ] πόησις), enigmatic (col. VII.5 ἀνθρώ[ποις] αἰνι[γμ]ατώδης), mystical (col. VII.7 ἱερολογεῖται), and allegorical (col. IX.10 ἠινίζετο) nature of the Orphic poem. The above-mentioned expressions capture Orpheus’ intention—or, to be more accurate, what the author has us believe to be Orpheus’ intention—of creating a sacred speech, a hierologia; his aim was to communicate theological truth to believers in a nonexplicit way, [13] thus rendering his speech incomprehensible to the many (cf. the repeated use of αἰνιζόμενος ἔφη / αἰνίζεται “allegorizing/speaking in an enigmatic way”). This deliberate obscurity calls for the superhuman intervention of an interpreter who is able to “translate” the divine discourse of Orpheus and, more importantly, to reveal the (hypothetical) intentionality behind his theogony. Textual markers such as σκέψασθαι δὲ χρή “one has to consider…” followed by ἐδήλωσεν “he made clear that…,” κ[α]θ’ ἔπος ἕκαστον ἀνάγκη λέγειν “it is neccessary to speak about each word in turn,” διὰ τοῦτο λέγει “for this reason he says…,” δῆλον “it is clear…,” σημαίν]ει δὲ [τ]όδε “and this indicates this…,” and the like suffice to illustrate the point. Occasionally, the author exceeds his role as a go-between between the Orphic text and the community, and grows into a {215|216} prophet himself, not only by assessing Orpheus’ theology (col. XXII.1–3 “so he named everything in the same way as best he could knowing the nature of men, that not all have the same (nature) nor all want the same things”), but also by judging divine providence (col. XXV.9–10: “if the god did not wish the present ἐόντα to exist, he would not have made the sun”).

3. Devising the Addressees

Were the textual world of the Derveni Papyrus to be inhabited only by the implied author, our reading experience would have been definitely less exciting, less dramatic, and less personalized than it is now. It is exciting because otherwise the text would have been monophonic; it is dramatic because the author animates his protagonists; it is personalized because the addressees function as (anti)models for the reader himself.

To gain in effectiveness, the author represents his instruction as a process of enlightenment; we may record the different stages of this process by observing the various portrayals of the addressees. At first, they seem to disbelieve on the basis of their ignorance:

Why do they disbelieve in the horrors of Hades? Without knowing (the meaning of) dreams or any of the other things, by what kind of evidence would they believe? For overcome both by error and pleasure as well, they neither learn nor believe.

Col. V.6–10

Disbelievers are those who cannot decipher the signs sent by the gods in the form of dreams—signs clearly hinting at the horrors of Hades. Crucial to their misinterpretation is the fact that they have given themselves over to pleasure. [
25] Are they to be identified with the many who have no hope of understanding? {219|220}

…having ordered them to “put doors to their ears,” he says that he is not legislating for the many [but addressing himself to those] who are pure in hearing…

Col. VII.9–11

The implied audience has been selected according to the main criterion applying to Orphic mysticism, namely the exclusion of the unholy. [
26] A few, uninitiated but with a prospect of understanding, are eventually accepted as recipients of the Orphic teaching and its interpretation. [27] Now, their lack of knowledge (οἱ δ’ οὐ γινώσκον[τες) is due to the misinterpretation of the Orphic theogony (δοκοῦσιν / οἱ δὲ δοκοῦντες), which in turn may be attributed to the ambiguity of the poetic language deployed; [28] the point is best illustrated in the following example:

But those who do not understand the word think that it means “of his own” [i.e. ἑᾶς] mother. But if he wanted to show the god “desiring to mingle in love with his own mother,” he could have said, altering (a few) letters, “ἑοῖο mother.”

Col. XXVI.8–12

Shifting from eschatology to mysticism and from philosophical exegesis to literary interpretation, the Derveni author manipulates his implied audience into accepting his view of Orphism; given that this view is subjective and refracted through the authorial strategies deployed, I will finally review the Derveni commentary as a complex, multilayered text, mainly by examining its relation to the Orphic original.

4. The Quoter and the Quotee

To conclude: The Derveni author imposes his highly personalized, subjective view upon the Orphic material; he devises his readers and communicates his own perspective of Orphism to them; this results in a text where citation, commentary, instruction, and apologetic converge. In my opinion, there are some interesting parallels with late antique and Byzantine texts, all of which can be regarded as “commentaries” on great works of the past—in the broadest sense of the term. These may include such diverse genres as philological criticism (especially Eustathius’ and Tzetzes’ personalized commentaries on Greek poetry), Christian apologetic, and Neoplatonic treatises, as well as works such as Basil’s Hexaemeron or Philon’s Quaestiones. We would benefit considerably by reading the Derveni text in the light of these works—but this is a subject for another study. {222|}


Bernabé, A. 2007a. “The Derveni Theogony: Many Questions and Some Answers.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 103:99–133.

———. 2007b. Poetae epici Graeci: Testimonia et fragmenta, pars II, fasc. 3. Berlin.

Betegh, G. 2004. The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology, and Interpretation. Cambridge.

Calame, C. 1997. “Figures of Sexuality and Initiatory Transition in the Derveni Theogony and Its Commentary.” In Laks and Most 1997:65–80.

Edmonds, R. G. 2008. “Extra-Ordinary People: Mystai and Magoi, Magicians and Orphics in the Derveni Papyrus.” Classical Philology 103:16–39.

Ferrari, F. 2007. “Note al testo delle colonne II–VII del papiro di Derveni.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 162:203–211.

Funghi, M. S. 1997. “The Derveni Papyrus.” In Laks and Most 1997:25–37.

Henrichs, A. 1984. “The Eumenides and the Wineless Libation in the Derveni Papyrus.” In Atti del XVII Congresso Internazionale di Papirologia (Napoli 1983) II:255–268. Naples.

Henry, M. 1986. “The Derveni Commentator as Literary Critic.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 116:149–164.

Janko, R. 1997. “The Physicist as Hierophant: Aristophanes, Socrates, and the Authorship of the Derveni Papyrus.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 118:61–94.

———. 2002–2003. “God, Science, and Socrates.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 46:1–17.

KPT = Th. Kouremenos, G.-M. Parássoglou, and K. Tsantsanoglou, The Derveni Papyrus, Edited with Introduction and Commentary (Florence, 2006).

Laks, A., and G. W. Most, eds. 1997. Studies in the Derveni Papyrus. Oxford.

Obbink, D. 1997. “Cosmology as Initiation vs. the Critique of Orphic Mysteries.” In Laks and Most 1997:39–54.

RENT = D. Herman, M. Jahn, and M.-L. Ryan, eds., The Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory (London, 2005).

Schironi, F. 2001. “L’Olimpo non é il cielo: Esegesi antica nel papiro di Derveni, in Aristarco e in Leagora di Siracusa.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 136:11–21.

Tsantsanoglou, K. 1997. “The First Columns of the Derveni Papyrus and Their Religious Significance.” In Laks and Most 1997:93–128.


[ back ] 1. I am grateful to Gregory Nagy for inviting me to present a first draft of this paper at the Derveni Conference (held at the Center for Hellenic Studies, 7–9 July 2008) and for granting me permission to publish it in Trends in Classics 2 (2010): 18–30. I am also indebted to Antonios Rengakos, Franco Montanari, and Yannis Tzifopoulos for their insightful comments.

[ back ] 2. See e.g. Calame 1997 and Obbink 1997.

[ back ] 3. Henry 1986:151–152.

[ back ] 4. In my citation of the Derveni Papyrus I follow the Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou 2006 edition (henceforth referred to as KPT); I have also adopted their translation of the Greek original.

[ back ] 5. See RENT s.v. “Space in narrative.”

[ back ] 6. E.g. Bernabé 2007a:124: “It can be a ἱερὸς λόγος related as λεγόμενα to a ritual, but it is impossible to determine which ritual it would be and whether it had something to do with the ones alluded to by the commentator himself.” On a thorough overview of the discussions of these columns, primarily from the viewpoint of Greek religion, see Betegh 2004:74–91.

[ back ] 7. If we follow the KPT edition, a temple may be mentioned at col. II.5 κατὰ π]άντα να[όν. But, since the reference to a temple is unlikely within an Orphic context, we may adopt another reconstruction, e.g. κατὰ π]άντα να[σμόν (suggested by Ferrari [2007:205]).

[ back ] 8. Cf. Betegh 2004:76: “Choai were most often made to the deceased at the grave. This would certainly fit well with the archaeological context of the roll, and raises the possibility that the text refers to such funerary rituals as were conducted also at the tomb at Derveni.”

[ back ] 9. E.g. Henrichs 1984 and Tsantsanoglou 1997.

[ back ] 10. Betegh 2004:88–89.

[ back ] 11. See RENT s.v. “Polyphony.”

[ back ] 12. Fundamental is the discussion about the problem of the authorship of the Derveni Papyrus by Janko (1997). On the profile of the Derveni author, as sketched out in the text, see Betegh 2004: 349–372.

[ back ] 13. Orpheus’ intention to deliver a mystical speech is more effectively expressed if we take Orpheus to be the subject of the verbs, see KPT 171–172.

[ back ] 14. Edmonds (2008:33 and n78) stresses the fact that the Derveni author displays his expert knowledge through the explication of a difficult poetic text, i.e. the Orphic theogony; moreover, he draws a very interesting parallel between the Derveni interpretation of Orpheus and the exegesis of the Simonides poem in Plato Protagoras 339a–347a.

[ back ] 15. See Henry 1986:150–151.

[ back ] 16. These features are brilliantly discussed by Henry (1986:151–163).

[ back ] 17. Betegh 2004:189–190.

[ back ] 18. For a thorough discussion of the commentator’s technique of applying the numerous divine names used by Orpheus to very few divinities, see Betegh 2004:185–205.

[ back ] 19. On the agonistic aspect of such criticism, see Edmonds 2008:33n79.

[ back ] 20. For a thorough analysis of this reference within the context of ancient scholarship, see Schironi 2001. Cf. Kouremenos in KPT 189–191, esp. the concluding remark on p. 191: “It is unclear whether in rejecting the identification of Olympus with the sky the Derveni author objects to the absence of a clear distinction between Olympus and the sky in Homer, to a pre-Zenodotean interpretation of the Homeric Olympus as the sky, or to the use of the noun ‘Olympus’ as a name for the outermost heavens in the natural philosophy of his day.”

[ back ] 21. On the didactic function, see Calame 1997:77–80.

[ back ] 22. Calame 1997:79, n23.

[ back ] 23. Even more so, if he had been a practitioner, probably a mantis, as Tsantsanoglou (1997:98) thinks: “But it is noticeable that this is not the didactic tendency of a theological thinker, but the desire of a religious practitioner to disseminate his professional secrets to the faithful.”

[ back ] 24. RENT s.v. “Address.”

[ back ] 25. On the association of disbelief and pleasure within an eschatological context in Plato, see Kouremenos in KPT 164–166.

[ back ] 26. On this topos of Orphic and related literature, see the testimonia collected by Bernabé (2007b, ad loc.).

[ back ] 27. Bernabé (2007a:100–102), on the contrary, argues that the listeners are already initiated and therefore the poem is not sensu stricto an initiation poem.

[ back ] 28. We may even find a counterexample implied in col. XIII.7–9: “Seeing that people consider all birth to depend on the genitals and that without the genitals there can be no birth, he used this (word) and likened the sun to a genital organ.” See e.g. Kouremenos (KPT 196), who remarks that the Derveni author in explaining the word αἰδοῖον appeals to common beliefs in order to justify the explanation that Orpheus employs in his own poem.

[ back ] 29. The various possibilities of classifying subject matter and genre of the Derveni text are listed by Betegh (2004:349–350).

[ back ] 30. For an overview of this debate, see Funghi 1997.

[ back ] 31. Henry 1986:163–164.

[ back ] 32. On the terminology, see RENT s.v. “Quotation theory.”

[ back ] 33. For a reconstruction of the Orphic theogony on the basis of (a) the literally quoted fragments and (b) “the content of the text the commentator read but did not quote,” see Bernabé 2007a; cf. Betegh 2004:92–131.

[ back ] 34. There is a dissonance between the Orphic theogony and the author’s cosmogonic views; see e.g. Betegh 2004:275, noting that “there is hardly anything connecting the two. This is why it is customarily held that the author—as indeed all who engage in the business of allegoresis—loses sight of and violates the apparent meaning of the text.”

[ back ] 35. On the philosophical affiliations of the Derveni author, see Janko 1997:61–66. Cf. the suggestion of Janko (2002–2003) that the Derveni author was probably regarded by his contemporaries as an “atheist” for the fact that he applied allegory and etymology to the interpretation of the holy texts of Orphism.

[ back ] 36. Obbink 1997:54.