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 5. Divination in the Derveni Papyrus

Sarah Iles Johnston

The Ohio State University

In this paper I will look at column V of the papyrus and then, more briefly, at column VI, in hopes of better understanding two issues. First, in what sorts of divinatory practices did the author of the Derveni Papyrus (hereafter the “Author”) engage, and what did he imagine those practices to accomplish? And second, what did he mean when he complained that other people disbelieved in (ἀπ̣ιστοῦσι) or misunderstood (ἀμα̣[θίη) what divination had to offer? [1]

Our Author goes on to mention two other sorts of divination: divination through dreams, in line 6, and, in line 7, what Tsantanoglou in 1997 and subsequently Kouremenos, in the commentary to the editio princeps, have interpreted to mean “omens” or “portents”: ἄλλα πράγματα. {90|91}

Both dream interpretation and the reading of omens are techniques characteristic of independent diviners. Putting that observation together with the Author’s reference to institutional oracles in lines 3 through 5, I would interpret the fragmentary statements that open column V as what remains of a generalizing statement. Our Author is not talking only about himself and people just like him when he uses the first-person plural. Rather, what he means to express is that humans have available to them a variety of methods for learning things that they would not otherwise know—including methods that the Author does not practice himself as well as some that he probably does—but that all of this divinatory effort is wasted because people either do not understand completely what divination tries to convey, or do not believe it, in spite of the efforts of experts such as himself.

More specifically in this case, as becomes clear as the column continues, people do not understand or believe what diviners can teach them about the “horrors of Hades” (Ἅιδου δεινά). What are these horrors? And what questions are people asking during divinatory enquiries that leads to their revelation?

It must also be remembered that there are numerous instances in which we do not have the exact phrasing of either the question asked of an oracle or the reply that it gave, especially in cases in which the enquiry has been embedded in a narrative source. If we had more examples of exactly what was asked and exactly what was answered, we might find yet other uses of themis or its cognates in oracular settings. Certainly, we know that the Delphic Oracle was credited with resolving a number of issues that, like those mentioned above, would be better described as issues of themis—that is, of whether something was proper to do—than as issues of whether something was profitable to do. To exemplify this, two cases can be used, in neither of which our source provides the specific words of the question posed to the oracle.

Column V might have discussed something similar. The Author seems to be complaining that divinatory experts know what the horrors of Hades are and that some of these experts, at least, enter manteia to ask whether it is proper to do certain things in connection with them, but that ordinary people persist either in disbelieving part or all of what the experts subsequently tell them or in misunderstanding it.

Exactly what it was that was questionably themis in this case must remain open, although my own hunch is that whatever followed εἰ θέμις either was very general, expressing the sorts of things that the experts might be expected to ask, such as “Is it proper to contravene our burial customs?,” or was a specific question that exemplified the larger category, such as “Is it proper to leave bodies unburied?” Not being a papyrologist, I cannot go further in suggesting phrases that would fit the lacuna. But in any case, what I want to emphasize is simply that issues of themis are not out of place at oracles—indeed, they are very much at home.

I will return now to a question I posed above: what are the “horrors of Hades” that divination reveals? Scholars have tended to assume that they are the horrors that await the souls of people who have not been initiated: wallowing in mud or carrying water in a sieve, for example. This is understandable, given that the papyrus interprets an Orphic poem and Orpheus was known as a poet who described the fate of the soul in the afterlife and what to do about it.

Our second choice is to assume that the oracles, dreams, and portents concerning Hades to which our Author refers gave information of a different kind from what most scholars have presumed—not about the potentially horrible postmortem fates of the people who were in the Author’s audience, but about something else of a horrible nature that was happening in Hades, or something horrible arising out of Hades.

These oracles I am talking about, at least according to the longer narratives in which most of them are embedded, were precipitated by people going to Delphi to find out why terrible things were happening—why their city had been beset by plague or famine, why the local women were sterile, or why some other disaster had struck them—even, in one case, why they kept losing at the Olympic Games. According to the pattern common in these stories, Apollo tells them that the disasters are due to the anger of one or more ghosts. Usually, Apollo goes on to explain why the ghosts are angry (they are murder victims, or their bodies have been left unburied, or they feel that they deserve a hero cult that has not yet been given to them). I collected all such Delphic oracles in an article I published several years ago; they comprise just over 10 percent of our corpus. {94|95} I offer just a few examples here to illustrate the way that most of the stories run.

Let me sum up what I have suggested so far. Drawing on the examples I have just offered and others like them, I suggest that when our Author talks about the “horrors of Hades” that are revealed by oracles or dreams or portents, he means miseries that those already dead are suffering, which causes them, in turn, to inflict miseries on the living. But understanding this doesn’t solve all of our problems, of course. We need to explore how the Author considered such information about Hades to be relevant to the kinds of rituals that he performed or expected other people to perform, and what disparity might lie between his interpretation of the information and that of the ordinary people, who apparently don’t heed his advice.

I will start by eliminating some otherwise attractive possible interpretations. Oracles, dreams, and omens about how the already dead were faring in the afterlife could not provide even a rough behavioral model for the living. In stories like those I have been telling you, the dead suffered because of things that were beyond their control: they had been murdered, for example, or had not received the cult they deserved. Nor are we to imagine, I think, that the Author means to suggest to his audience that they all need to assuage specific ghosts in the same manner as the oracles and dreams directed: it simply could not have been the case that all of them had committed murder or otherwise offended specific individuals among the dead.

This is not to say that our Author might not have performed, or directed others to perform, rituals that would solve problems such as those the Delphic Oracle described; the sort of practitioner whom most of us envision this Author to be wore more than one hat, and could have been a psychagôgos in addition to everything else. Epimenides is an ideal example of such a combination: he was a mantis; he visited the Athenians at the Delphic Oracle’s recommendation in order to lay troublesome ghosts; while there he established teletai for the Athenians and modified their funerary customs; and he even wrote theogonic poetry—the sort of poetry that our Author is interested in. [33] Epimenides, incidentally, shared yet another trait with our Author. According to Clement of Alexandria, Epimenides claimed to be able to purify anyone from any difficulty, whether of the soul or of the body, by means of teletai , and to identify its cause (καὶ τὸ αἴτιον εἰπεῖν). [34] Like our Author, Epimenides wasn’t content with simply performing {97|98} rituals; he wanted to understand how the problem they addressed had arisen and why the ritual would work. Another example of the kind of person I am describing is the sort of ritual specialist whom Plato derides at Republic 364–365, one who is described as a mantis; as being able to erase misdeeds committed by an individual or his ancestors through purification and sacrifices; as being able to deliver those who were already dead from the miseries they suffer as well as to prepare the living for the afterlife; and as crediting his techniques to treatises composed by Musaeus and Orpheus. [35]

But to get back to our Author and his audience of people who didn’t under-stand or believe what they needed to about the horrors of Hades. We start to get an answer as to what they were missing when we look at the next column of the papyrus. There, in the first two and a half lines, we are told that souls can be appeased by prayers and sacrifices and that impeding daimones can be fended off by the special songs of the magoi. And then perhaps, depending on what reading one accepts for the next bit, we are told that impeding daimones and avenging souls (ψυχαὶ τιμωροί) are the same thing. I think that ψυχαὶ τιμωροί is the correct reading here because of what the Author goes on to say in lines 7 and 8: the knobs on the cakes that are offered are innumerable because the souls of the dead are innumerable. The inherent logic is that you must sacrifice enough of something to ensure that everyone who should receive a bit of it does so; ergo, souls of some kind are receiving sacrifice, and the most economical way to understand the whole passage is to assume that the souls to whom the magoi offer cakes are the same souls as those mentioned in line 4, in which case ψυχαὶ τιμωροί makes perfect sense.

Performing rituals to protect yourself from creatures of the Underworld—who were variously called empousai, daimones empodôn, kaka pneumata that were empodôn, Εrinyes, or phasmata—then, was crucial to winning a good afterlife: the kind of afterlife that mystery initiations promised. But only within mystery religions was it important, as far as we can tell: we don’t hear about it outside of the context of mysteries. It seems to have been one of the innovations that mysteries introduced into eschatology.

Not all mysteries were as drawn-out as the Eleusinian, however; only Eleusis, as far as we know, had this two-stage process, and I assume that most mysteries incorporated both purification from blood-guilt and confrontation by an impeding daimôn—from which the purified initiate emerged victorious—into the same ritual program. The idea of blood-guilt contagion also underlay many of the stories I mentioned earlier about plagues and famines, of course—it was Oedipus who murdered Laius, for example, but all of Thebes suffered until the score had been settled. Mysteries were taking an old idea and applying it more broadly, and then mysteries were promising to do something about it.

There is a difference, however, between the way that our Author presents these impeding daimones and the way that other mysteries present them. Only our Author explicitly identifies them with the souls of the (avenging) dead. This, I suggest, was his own innovation, or the innovation of an exclusive subgroup of initiators amongst whom he counted himself. It was also, I would suggest, what provoked the frustration that the Author expresses in column V. As our Author sees it, the sorts of information about the horrors of the angry dead that people take away from divinatory methods—for example, some ghost is mad and is causing a plague in your city; you must propitiate that ghost to restore the equilibrium—is only part of a larger problem. In his understanding, angry ghosts are much more pervasive sources of trouble; the horrors they can bring go beyond those narrated in the solutions provided by Delphi. The horrors include attacks against not only those who were personally responsible for {100|101} their miserable situations or people who were closely associated with those who were responsible, but anyone who came into striking distance, including people who were being initiated—a process that brought them temporarily closer to the world of the dead—and people who had died without getting initiated. The “horrors of Hades,” in other words, include the ψυχαὶ τιμωροί who have become δαίμονες ἐμποδών.

Our Author, then, understands relations between the living and the dead to be in an ongoing state of potential disruption, even when there is no plague or famine or losing streak at the Olympic Games to bring the matter to the immediate attention of the living, and he considers himself a specialist in adjusting those relations. And yet, instead of doing what our Author knows that they should, people are overcome by error—that is, they do not understand or believe what he advocates—or they are overcome by pleasure—and here, I think he is referring to the same sorts of rituals as Plato famously complained of in the passage from the Republic that I mentioned earlier, where he said that agurtai kai manteis trick not only individuals but whole cities into thinking they are off the hook for both their own sins and those of their dead ancestors once they have participated in what Plato scornfully calls ἡδοναὶ ἑορταί or παιδιᾶς ἡδοναί. Our Author rants against not only ordinary people who refuse to accept the full import of what he thinks divination can teach us about the Underworld but also against fellow initiators who fail to understand matters fully themselves, and therefore pass off simpler, easier rituals than those he advocates and practices himself.

To sum up: like most scholars, I understand the Author of columns V and VI to be a ritual expert who wants to justify the particular techniques that he recommends by explaining what they really mean. In particular, he wants to explain the real identities of the entities to whom he directs his rituals, and why those entities must be given the attention he recommends.

To do so, he draws on a concept that is familiar to everyone: that the angry dead can harm the living. In this sense, our Author is actually preserving, and even valorizing, certain aspects of mainstream religious practices and beliefs. His complaint is only that the average person fails to understand or believe all of the implications, in spite of the fact that those implications are crucial to their postmortem happiness. The Author also draws on knowledge that is specific to mysteries—although it is knowledge that to some degree was shared by non-initiates as well, if Aristophanes and Lucian could satirize it: namely, that some sort of entity is apt to impede initiates during mystery rituals and impede the uninitiated after death.

The Author innovates upon both mainstream tradition and previous mystery practices by combining the two sets of beliefs and practices: that is, by understanding the first group of entities—the angry dead about whom oracles, dreams, and portents inform us—to be the same as the second group—the impeding daimones against whom mysteries protect us. And then he innovates again, by arguing that these ghosts who were daimones can be transformed—once more, through ritual—into creatures who were traditionally understood to be goddesses, the Eumenides. It is a tightly woven set of connections, each step of which depends not only on the previous step, but also on a highly developed propensity to seek out analogies and relationships that are hidden to others. The final result, here as elsewhere in the Derveni Papyrus, is an idiosyncratic, cerebral religious system that can justify the individual planks of its doctrines with reference to existing beliefs and practices, but which, as a {103|104} whole, undoubtedly would have struck someone of average religious disposition as counterintuitive.

We will not see anything quite like it for another five or six hundred years, when the equally cerebral Neoplatonists give birth to the equally idiosyncratic religious system known as “theurgy.” And that turn of events, by the way, went hand-in-hand with a huge burgeoning of interest in Orphic theogonies, for alongside their much revered Timaeus and Chaldean Oracles, the theurgists set the poetry of Orpheus, and then labored intensely to show how these three great sources of theological knowledge were in concord with one another, so that they might better decipher the hidden messages these works contained. What a shame it is that from the most industrious of these interpreters, Proclus, we have inherited a complete Platonic Theology, and quite a lot of what he wrote about the Chaldean Oracles, but relatively little of what we know to have been his extensive exposition of Orpheus’ theogonic poetry. There, if anywhere, we might finally meet the match of our Derveni Author. {104|}


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———. 1992. Myth and Cult: The Iconography of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Skrifter Utgivna av Svenska Institutet I Athen 8, XI. Stockholm.

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———. 1995. La magie dans l’antiquité gréco-romaine. Paris.

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———. 2008. Ancient Greek Divination. London.

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———. 1997. “Hocus-pocus in East and West: Theogony, Ritual, and the Tradition of Esoteric Commentary.” In Laks and Most 1997:81–92.

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[ back ] 1. Throughout this paper, unless otherwise noted, I will use the text of Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou (2006).

[ back ] 2. Tsantsanoglou (1997); West (1997; 1983); Janko (1997) draws a parallel with Empedocles; Betegh (2004:78–83) leans towards the possibility that he was a magos. Henrichs (1984) is against these interpretations; he thinks the author is an anti-Orphic. Obbink (1997) is also cautious on the question although he notes that a firm case against the Author being a practitioner is yet to be made. Kouremenos (2006:45–58) reviews all previous discussions and leans towards the conclusion that he was not a practitioner.

[ back ] 3. E.g. Plutarch The Oracles at Delphi 397a and Obsolescence of Oracles 438b.

[ back ] 4. The verb ἐπερωτάω, found in line 4 of col. V, is also common in descriptions of making enquiries at institutional oracles.

[ back ] 5. For details on these and similar stories, see Johnston 2008:81–82, 94, 128.

[ back ] 6. Epimenides: Parke and Wormell 1956: no. 13 = Fontenrose 1978: no. Q65 = Diogenes Laertius 1.10.110; cf. Plutarch Solon 12, Plato Laws 642d4–643a1 and Jacoby at FGrH 457F4 (esp. 4e: Clement of Alexandria Protrepticus 2.26.4). Discussion at Johnston 2008:119–125.

[ back ] 7. The reasons for this are obvious: institutional oracles took care to keep their diviners isolated, away from potentially corrupting influences, for the duration of their terms of service. And at most oracles, official business kept the diviner busy; he or she did not have time to freelance. Even if the Pythia gave forth inspired oracles only one day a month, she participated in divination by lot on other days, for instance.

[ back ] 8. See Plato Laws 828a.

[ back ] 9. Parke and Wormell 1956: no. 537 = Fontenrose 1978: no. L147 = Porphyry On Abstinence 2.9.

[ back ] 10. Fr. 314 Smith line 24 = Eusebius Praeparatio evangelica IV.9.

[ back ] 11. Text at Wörrle 1990:19–58 = SEG 40 (1990) no. 956 = SGOst I (1998) no. 01/23/02; discussed by Busine (2005:169 and 182–183).

[ back ] 12. I.Didyma 277 = Rob. D-56 = Fontenrose 1978:29 = SGOst I (1998) no. 01/19/10; text and discussion in Busine 2005:169 and 181–182. Cf. also a second-century oracle from Claros to the citizens of Kaisareia Troketta, which enjoins them to carry out Apollo’s orders “in accordance with the law [or custom]”: κατὰ τεθμόν: Buresch 1889:8–9 = IGR IV 1498 = Rob. C-14 = Merkelbach and Stauber 1996: no. 8 = SGOst I (1998) no. 04/01/01.

[ back ] 13. See Johnston 2008:57–60.

[ back ] 14. Parke and Wormell 1956: no. 24 = Fontenrose 1978: no. Q74 = Herodotus 5.67.2. Apollo withheld his approval.

[ back ] 15. Plutarch Life of Aratus 53.2 = Parke and Wormell 1956: no. 358 = Fontenrose 1978: no. Q235. Apollo gave his approval.

[ back ] 16. Parke and Wormell 1956: no. 473 = Fontenrose 1978: no. H69 = Porphyry Life of Plotinus 22.

[ back ] 17. Polites at Didyma: Lactantius Divine Institutes 7.13 = Theosophia Tubingensis 37; cf. Fox 1986:192–193; Busine 2005:213–214. Apollo replied, “While the soul is still in the body, it tolerates the pains that cannot hurt it. When the body fades and dies, the soul ranges freely through the air, ageless, forever unwearied. For this is the ordinance of divine providence.”

[ back ] 18. The closest we come is Er’s out-of-body experience, but neither Er himself nor Plato calls that a dream, whatever Cicero chose to make of it. The standard way of conveying such information was through the inspired words of poets such as Orpheus.

[ back ] 19. Philostratus Life of Apollonius 4.14 and On Heroes 28.9.

[ back ] 20. Johnston 2005.

[ back ] 21. Children stoned to death in Caphyae: Parke and Wormell 1956:385 = Fontenrose 1978: no. L91 = Pausanias 8.23.7.

[ back ] 22. Pythagoras the Tyrant: Parke and Wormell 1956: no. 27 = Fontenrose 1978: no. Q82ng = Suda s.v. Pythagoras Ephesios (Ael. fr. 48 = Baton FGrH 268 F 3).

[ back ] 23. Aesop and the people of Delphi: Parke and Wormell 1956: no. 58 = Fontenrose 1978: no. Q107ng = Herodotus 2.134.4.

[ back ] 24. The Achaean losing streak at the Olympics: Parke and Wormell 1956: no. 118 = Fontenrose 1978: no. Q169g = Pausanias 6.3.8.

[ back ] 25. Sophocles Oedipus Rex 95–141.

[ back ] 26. Pindar Pythian 4.156–164.

[ back ] 27. The bones of Hesiod: Parke and Wormell 1956: no. 207 = Fontenrose 1978: no. L42 = Pausanias 9.38.3.

[ back ] 28. Hero cult for Skephros: Parke and Wormell 1956: no. 566 = Fontenrose 1978: no. L154 = Pausanias 8.53.3.

[ back ] 29. Aeschylus Choephoroi 37ff. The same sequence plays out in Sophocles’ version of the story.

[ back ] 30. Aeschylus Choephoroi 269ff.

[ back ] 31. Sophocles Antigone 998–1022.

[ back ] 32. The Sybaritic fountain of blood: Parke and Wormell 1956: no. 74 = Fontenrose 1978: no. Q123ng = Aelian Historical Miscellany 3.43.

[ back ] 33. Sources for Epimenides above n6.

[ back ] 34. FGH 457 4e = Clement of Alexandria Protrepticus 2.26.4. Cf. also Plato Meno 81a5–c4: “Those who tell it are priests and priestesses of the sort who make it their business to be able to account for the functions which they perform.” These priests and priestesses are also credited with the doctrine of metempsychosis and with the idea that one must atone for an “ancient grief” after death in connection with how one’s soul returns to the upper world.

[ back ] 35. Betegh (2004:370–372) notes that Empedocles’ voice had magical power, he proclaimed oracles, he cured illnesses, he was a mantis and a propagator of cathartic and telestic rites, and on one occasion he raised the dead.

[ back ] 36. Johnston 1999:130–139.

[ back ] 37. Aristophanes Frogs 293.

[ back ] 38. Demosthenes 18.130.

[ back ] 39. Iamblicus On the Mysteries of Egypt 3.31, 178.8–16.

[ back ] 40. Lucian Cataplus 22.

[ back ] 41. Dio Chrysostom Orations 4.90.

[ back ] 42. Fr. 178.

[ back ] 43. Other sources mention more vaguely that something frightening happened to initiates, or was seen by them, during mystery initiations: Aristides 22.3 p. 28 and 41.10 p. 333 (Keil); Demetrius Elocution ch. 100; Plutarch fr. 178; Proclis Theologia Platanica 3.18 pg. 151 Portus and also Alcibiades 340.1. See also the late first-century decree discussed by Clinton (1974:56–57). The words I translate as “frightening” and “shocking” are cognates of phrikê and ekplêksis. Each is used in several sources. Plutarch refers to panta deina, “all sorts of terrible things.” On the process as a whole, Clinton 1992:84–87, Graf 1974:126–139, Seaford 1981:254–263, Johnston 1999:130–139.

[ back ] 44. Phaedrus 244d5–245a1: “When grievous maladies and affliction have beset certain families by reason of some ancient sin, madness has appeared among them, and breaking out into prophecy has secure relief by finding the means thereto, namely by recourse to prayer and worship, and in consequence therefore rites [teletai] and means of purification were established and the sufferer was brought out of danger, alike for the present and for the future…” Cf. Burkert 1992:66. Cf. Orph. fr. 350 (Bernabé = 232 Kern) = Olympiodorus On Phaedo p. 87.13 Norv. where Orpheus describes how Dionysiac initiations bring relief both from the persecutions of “lawless ancestors” (progonoi athemistoi) and from the “difficult labors and endless sufferings” that await one in the Underworld.

[ back ] 45. According to myth, these had been established by Demeter for Heracles’ sake. He wanted to be initiated at Eleusis, but she was forced to refuse him because he had blood on his hands. Once he had been purified at the Lesser Mysteries, he was free to go on. Representations show Heracles being treated at the Lesser Mysteries with the Fleece of Zeus, which is associated with purification from blood-guilt in other contexts, and it is fairly clear that this object was used on actual initiates during the Lesser Mysteries as well: details at Johnston 1999:132–136.

[ back ] 46. Aeschylus Seven Against Thebes 976–977.

[ back ] 47. Rohde 1925:178–180.

[ back ] 48. Notably, the more specific description of offerings in the middle of this column specifies water, milk, and cakes, all of which are found in descriptions of offerings to the dead.

[ back ] 49. Only one of the many other references to magoi in classical sources, so far as I know, suggests any connection to the dead at all: at Herodotus 7.43, the magoi help Xerxes make libations and sacrifices to the dead heroes buried at Troy. Herodotus credits the true Persian magoi with a variety of functions, including the interpretation of dreams and portents such as eclipses, the propitiation of river gods through sacrifice, and the recitation of sacred theogonies. Magoi in Greece similarly had a variety of skills, including the production of drugs and protective amulets and perhaps divination. Xenophon’s description of them as “technicians of the divine” (hoi peri tous theous technitai) is likely to come close to the common Greek view: they knew a lot about the gods that was hidden from the average individual (Herodotus 1.107–108, 1.132, 7.37, 7.113–114; Euripides Suppliants 1108-1110, Plato Statesman 280e1–2 and Laws 933c6–d1; Xenophon Cyropaedia 8.3.11. On the significance of magos cf. Graf 1995:32, taking a slightly different approach.)

[ back ] 50. Tsantsanoglou 1997:110–112. Tsantsanoglou also noted here that the Author uses the noun metastasis in col. XV to mean “change.”

[ back ] 51. Henrichs 1984.