The Derveni Papyrus: The Most Ancient Book in Europe Involved in a Campaign Against Orpheus?
The Derveni Papyrus has recently been inscribed as one of the works for protection within the Memory of the World Register by UNESCO. Named as the ‘Most Ancient Book in Europe,’ the history of the text’s discovery and decoding is almost as interesting as the content contained within. When the papyrus was discovered by chance in Derveni (near Thessalonika), Greece in 1962 the document was badly charred. It was not until 2006 that the text was decoded and the allegorical commentary and ancient religious teachings it included came to light and caused more questions and controversy to arise.
The History of the Derveni Papyrus
The discovery of the Derveni Papyrus was unanticipated – as with many archaeological finds in modern times it came about through development. When the National Road was constructed between Thessalonika to Kavala in Greece, numerous tombs were unearthed. In tomb A’s funeral pyre, a charred papyrus roll was found amongst the rich grave goods (which included metal artifacts as well.) The carbonized document survived in the humid Greek soil, but was so delicate that it separated into more than 200 fragments.
Drawing of the interior of Derveni Tomb A, where the Derveni Papyrus was recovered in 1962. ( Themelis and Touratsoglou )
When the fragments were pieced together, 22 columns of text were originally visible – all with the bottom lines missing due to the burning. Writing on the discovery in his book The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation Gábor Betegh wrote:
The bottom part of the papyrus was consumed by the flames, and only 7-8 cm (2.8-3.1 inches) of the upper half escaped. This means that we have 15-17 lines of writing in the better preserved columns, of which the upper 10-11 lines have an almost continuous text, whereas usually only a few letters are legible in the bottom lines. Only small fragments of 9-10 lines, some with hardly any legible letters, remain from the badly damaged first columns.
The date of the Derveni Papyrus has ranged from 350 -320 BC. However, the text contained within may be from the 5th Century BC. The author of the document is unknown, with some scholars suggesting Euthyphron of Prospalta, Diagoras of Melos, and Stesimbrotus of Thasos as possible contenders.
It took many years for the publishing of the Derveni Papyrus. In 1982 an anonymous writer published an unauthorized version of the papyrus in the back of a scholarly journal to speed things up. Following this more unofficial copies of the Derveni Papyrus began to emerge. Finally, in 2006 the content of the papyrus fully came to light – it is a treatise that contains both religious instructions and allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem.
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The Story Within the Derveni Papyrus
Technology has enabled researchers to decipher four more columns of the Derveni Papyrus, now completing the text at 26 columns. Within these columns are philosophical writings focused on the gods, cosmos, religious practices, and the nature of the soul.
Harvard University’s Center for Hellenistic Studies has described the text as:
“the eschatological teaching of a mantis; the content is divided between religious instructions on sacrifices to gods and souls, and allegorical commentary on a theogonical poem ascribed to Orpheus. The author’s outlook is philosophical, displaying, in particular, a physical system close to those of Anaxagoras, the Atomists, and Diogenes of Apollonia. His allegorical method of interpretation is especially interesting, frequently reminiscent of Socrates’ playful mental and etymological acrobatics as seen in Plato’s Cratylus.”
Roman mosaic depicting Orpheus surrounded by animals. ( Giovanni Dall’Orto/Wikimedia Commons )
Within the text is the direct mention of Orpheus, as seen in column 8:
“For it is not possible to state what way the words are used and at the same time the text itself His poetry is something strange and riddling for people. But Orpheus did not intend to tell them captious riddles, but momentous things in riddles. Indeed, he is telling a holy discourse from the first and up to his last word. As he also makes clear in the well-chosen verse: for having ordered them to put doors to their ears he says that he is [? not legislating] for the many... [? but only for] those pure in hearing...”
It has also been argued that the Derveni Papyrus describes a creation myth in which Night gives birth to Heaven/Uranus (“Ouranos son of Night, who first of all ruled” –column 15) and Cronus then Zeus succeed Heaven/Uranus as kings (“From him in turn Kronos, and then wise Zeus.” – column 16).