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.
- Did British soldiers plunder Amphipolis Tomb in 1916?
- The Enigma of the Thracians and the Orpheus Myth
- Rediscovered Papyri Fragments Provide Charming Insight into Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt
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).
Cronus castrates Uranus (16th Century) by Vasari and Gherardi. Palazzo Vecchio. ( Public Domain )
Was the Derveni Papyrus part of a Religion Smear Campaign?
Richard Janko, one of the leading researchers on the Derveni Papyrus and one of the first to publish (an unofficial) version of the text, has said that the importance of the papyrus indicates that “Ancient Athens was in the grips of a culture war between science and religion.”
In the Derveni Papyrus he credits the unknown writer with the disclosure of details of the Orphic and other mysteries, seemingly with the goal of “putting people off” from initiating into the mysteries. Janko asserts that the argument against the Orphic mysteries culminates at column 20.
Here is a copy of the text from column 20:
those men who, while performing the rites in the cities, have seen the holy things, I wonder less that they do not have knowledge. For it is not possible to hear and at the same time to understand (or: learn) what is being said. But all those who (hope to acquire knowledge?) from someone who makes craft of the holy rites deserve to be wondered at and pitied. Wondered at because, thinking that they will know before they perform the rites, they go away after having performed them before they have attained knowledge, without even asking further questions, as though they knew anything of what they have seen or heard or learned; and pitied because it is not enough for them to have spent their money in advance, but they also go off deprived even of their judgement. Hoping before performing the holy rites that they will attain knowledge, they go away after having performed them deprived of hope too. ... by his own... mother ... sister ...
Simplified, Janko believes that the author was saying that the initiates “Are gullible and waste their money…because they accept the priest’s explanation and do not enquire further into what they have heard.” According to Janko, the issue for the Derveni Papyrus’ author was not with religion, but instead with taking all religious ritual and text as literal.
However, the claims the Derveni Papyrus’ author made in writing may have been seen as blasphemous if they were presented publically and, as Janko says, “If the Athenians did sentence him to death for impiety, as they sentenced Diagoras of Melos [one of the proposed authors of the text], this would certainly have been in accord with the attitudes that they are documented to have held in the closing decades of the fifth century BC.” All of this leads one to wonder, who was within the funeral pyre and why did the individual have this text? These questions remain unanswered.
Diagoras of Melos in the painting ‘The School of Athens.’ Some scholars believe that Diagoras of Melos was the writer of the Derveni Papyrus. ( Public Domain )
- The Egyptian Dream Book
- Ancient philosophical writings found hidden beneath a medieval text
- 4,000-year-old Ancient Egyptian manuscript measuring more than 8ft has been rediscovered in Cairo
- Could ancient textbooks be the source of the next medical breakthrough?
A UNESCO Inscription to Protect the Derveni Papyrus
UNESCO’s recent inscription has the goal to preserve the Derveni Papyrus as part of the Memory of the World Register “for present and future generations in the spirit of international cooperation and mutual understanding, building peace in the minds of women and men.”
Well before UNESCO noted the importance of the Derveni Papyrus, it was already accepted as a significant manuscript by many scholars and, if one is interested, copies of the text in the original Greek or translated into English are available at several online sites, such as: the Imouseion Project and the Art of Wise .
Featured image: Section of the Derveni Papyrus. ( To BHMA )
Betegh, G. (2004). The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation. Cambridge University Press.
Ideas Roadshow. (2013). The Derveni Papyrus - A conversation with Richard Janko. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyOMfrVwgGk
Janko, R. (n.d.). Reconstructing (Again)the Opening of the Derveni Papyrus. http://ancphil.lsa.umich.edu/-/downloads/faculty/janko/reconstructing-again-derveni.pdf
Muellner, L., Nagy, G., Papadopoulou, I. (2015). The Derveni Papyrus: An Interdisciplinary Research Project. http://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5418
NEOnline (2015). The Most Ancient Book in Europe. http://neurope.eu/article/the-most-ancient-book-in-europe/
Pearse, R. (2006). The Derveni Papyrus (PDerveni). http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/manuscripts/derveni.htm
Pearse, R. (2012). An Online Version of the Derveni Papyrus. http://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2012/06/23/an-online-edition-of-the-derveni-papyrus/
UPI (2006). ‘Oldest’ Papyrus is Finally Decoded. http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2006/06/01/Oldest-papyrus-is-finally-decoded/23991149183747/