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Orphic Religion

Instructions for the Netherworld: The Orphic Gold Tablets by Alberto Bernabé, Ana Isabel Jimenez San Cristobal, iconographic commentary by Ricardo Olmos, illustrated by Sara Olmos (or), translated by Michael Chase (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World: Brill) Orphic gold tables are key documents for the knowledge of rites and beliefs of Orphics, an atypical group that configured a highly original creed and that influenced powerfully over other Greek writers and thinkers. The recent discovery of some tablets has forced a noteworthy modification of some points of view and a review of the different hypothesis proposed about them. The book presents a complete edition of the texts, their translation and some fundamental keys for their interpretation, in an attempt at updating our current knowledge on Orphic ideas about the soul and the Afterlife stated in those texts. The work is improved with an appendix of iconographic annotations in which some plastic representations in drawings are reproduced related to the universe of tablets, selected and commented on by Ricardo Olmos.

ALBERTO BERNABE, Ph. D. (1973) in Classical Philology, University Cornplutense, Madrid, is Professor of Ancient Greek at the same University. He has published extensively on Orphic Texts including the edition of the Orphic Testimonies and Fragments in the Bibliotheca Teubneriana (2004-2005).

ANA ISABEL JIMENEZ SAN CRISTOBAL, Ph. D. (2002) in Classical Philology, University Complutense, Madrid, is Assistant Professor of Ancient Greek at the same University. She has published extensively on Orphic Texts including her Ph. D. Rituales orficos (Universidad Complutense, 2002)

The Spanish edition of this book was published in 2001. Many changes and additions have been made for the English translation. Firstly, it includes new gold tablets found or published after the release of the Spanish edition and new readings or interpretations about all texts. Secondly, the authors have rewritten some chapters, taking new research into account. The preparation of a collective work on Orpheus and the Orphic tradition, edited by Alberto Bernabé and Francesc Casadesus, has had an important influence in this undertaking.
The edition of the texts has been revised according Bernabé's edition of the gold tablets for Poetae Epici Graeci, Testimonia et Fragmenta Pars II, Orphicorum et Orphicis similium testirnonia et fragmenta fasc. 2, Monachii et Lipsiae, Saur 2005. Indexes have been added in order to facilitate the use of the book.

The Orphic gold tablets, despite the brevity of the texts they contain and the difficulties which their analysis presents, are fundamental documents for our understanding of Greek religion, since they give us direct access to the most ancient stages of Orphic religion and literature, and present a very significant panorama of the rituals and beliefs of this religious group, which exerted a powerful influence on other Greek authors and thinkers: some Pre-Socratic philosophers, lyric poets like Pindar, Plato, and then the Neoplatonists. The considerable list of titles presented in our bibliography, which collects the studies that have been dedicated to them by a growing number of the best specialists in philology, philosophy, or the religions and history of Greece is, we believe, a good indication of their importance.

The study of these texts is in a state of genuine flux, since new documents continue to appear, which oblige us to continually alter our assumptions about particular cases. There are even some tablets that have not yet even been published. However, this prolonged effort on the part of many eminent philologists has enabled us to make considerable advances in analysis, and to reach some reasonably certain conclusions. This is why it has seemed to us opportune to offer here a complete edition of the texts so far known, together with a translation and commentaries in which the principal findings of this investigation are synthesized.

The text presented is very similar to that published by Alberto Bernabé in the Bibliotheca Teubneriana.

The authors also include a series of iconographical notes, which include reproductions (with drawings by Sara Olmos) of a few artistic representations that are related to the universe of the tablets, selected and commented upon by Ricardo Olmos.

Beginning with the least debatable aspects of these documents, the external ones: their formal characteristics, the places in which they came to light, and the form of the language in which they are written:

The objects in question are a series of gold tablets of very small dimension (they vary between 8 and 4 cm. wide and 3 to 1 cm long). The use of gold no doubt corresponds to the search for a material intended to be noble and long-lasting, useful for avoiding malign influences and a symbol of the durability of the life that the deceased hoped for. By contrast lead, which was used in defixiones, symbolized the destruction and death that these were intended to bring about.

The writing that appears on them is minuscule in size and very careless in its ductus. The people who wrote, or rather scribbled these tablets were obviously not highly literate. Often, the letters appear to be traced so summarily that aporay is reduced to a vertical line. Spelling mistakes are innumerable. In addition, the gold surface, thin and shiny, has tended to curl up and form wrinkles, which are sometimes hard to distinguish from letters. All this makes their reading and interpretation extraordinarily difficult.

They are found in graves, but the limited number of graves that have yielded documents of this type, compared to the thousands that have been excavated, indicates that the users of the tablets were a minority group, with a certain unity of beliefs, probably initiates, or followers of a religious movement which, after several years of doubt, we must now, without hesitation, call "Orphic", and convinced that a special destiny was reserved for them in the beyond.

They have come to light only in a few places, and differ widely in date, with almost six hundred years between the oldest, the one from Hipponion, c. 400 B.C., and the most recent, which appeared at Rome and is datable to 260 A.D. The majority of them, however, date from between the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.

A group came to light in Magna Graecia. The oldest one, although it was among the latest to appear, is the Hipponion tablet, found in Vibo Valentia, Calabria, ancient Hipponion, city of Persephone, a colony of the Epizephrian Locrians. As said, it is dated with complete certainty, for epigraphical and archeological reasons, to around 400 B.C. Later by half a century than the first is a tablet that appeared in Petelia, also in Calabria, to the north of Crotona. It was the first of the entire collection to be found. Very similar in its text is another copy, apparently found in Sicily, and in rather poor condition. Since this piece is in the possession of an unknown private collector, we know nothing of its archaeological context (although it seems it must have appeared in Petraro, near Entella). The first editor dated it to the 3rd century B.C., but in our opinion we must raise its date to the 4th century B.C. In the so-called timpone or tombs at Thurii, five tablets were found, including three that are very similar to one another, another somewhat different, and a fifth very large one, showing significant differences from all the others. All of them date from the mid-4th century B.C.

Also in Magna Graecia, in San Vito di Luzzi in Cosenza, some curious inscribed earrings or pendants were found, which we must place chronologically between the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Despite not being gold tablets, it seems they had similar eschatological functions.

The second region to offer finds of this kind has been Thessaly. We have a tablet from Pharsalus, from the 4th. century B.C., and two found in Pelinna, now Paleoyardiki, one of the most recently published finds. In all probability, another one, now in the Paul Getty Museum of Malibu, California, also comes from Thessaly. Yet another two have been found in Pherai.

In addition, eight tablets have come to light in Crete, all in the same places, at Eleutherna in Milopotamus and in Rethymno, but at varying intervals of time. They are highly uniform in content, and are datable to the 3rd century B.C.; there are also two brief greetings to the underworld gods.

In Macedonian Pella and Amphipolis, specimens with very brief texts have been found, dating from the 4th century B.C., to which we must add some very brief texts from Paeonia, also in Macedonia, from Methone and Aegion in Achaia, which go back to Hellenistic times, two tablets, one of them almost illegible, found at Hagios Athanassios near Thessalonica (of indeterminate period).

The most recent tablet is one found at Rome, dating from around 260 of our era, which is extremely interesting as a proof of the persistence of this type of documents, more than seven hundred years after the first one we possess.

It is odd that none have appeared in Attica. The reason may be that this region was dominated by Eleusis, and the Eleusinian mysteries did not make use of this kind of text, or else that the Orphics were buried elsewhere than average citizens, and their cemetery has not been either found or excavated.

In some cases, the tablets appear in open form, in others folded. In the former case, they were placed in the hand of the deceased; in the latter, they could be placed on the deceased's chest or in his mouth, like the obol for Charon. Some of the Cretan ones may have been used as epistomia, or coverings for the lips of the deceased.' The two tablets from Pelinna, which have the exceptional form of an ivy leaf (or a heart) inscribed and contain nearly identical texts, were deposited on the dead woman's chest, one on each side. The one from Petelia appeared rolled up and stored in a cylinder held fast with a tiny gold chain; but this was not its original position, since the cylinder is much later, probably from the 2nd century A.D., which indicates that the tablet must have been re-used as an amulet in the Roman period (cf. App. II, n. 15). The tablet from Pharsalus was placed inside a sumptuous hydria (cf. App. II, n. 8).

The leaves contain brief texts in verse, mainly dactylic hexameters, although there are considerable metrical problems. Suffice it to say that there are occasional heptameters and pentameters, with various instances of metrical license:

It is, however, curious to observe that on more than one occasion prose sequences are introduced (or perhaps other rhythmic structures, not of course hexametric), which seem to correspond to mystical formulas, passwords, or other phrases of a ritual character. In general, these phrases are difficult to interpret, and in many cases they have given rise to long scholarly discussions. A fundamental cause of this variety of interpretation is, in our opinion, that the expressions in question are suggestive and ambivalent; when they give rise to diverse interpretations we must ask ourselves not whether they mean A or B, but whether they might not mean both A and B.

With regard to the dialect in which they are written, it is a kind of mixture. For the most part, they are in the epic dialect, but with abundant Dorianisms. There are even occasional linguistic "monsters" produced by mixtures between different dialects.

As far as the content of these documents is concerned, if we leave aside a few divergent specimens (the shortest ones—containing a proper name and/or the word mystes, or not even that , and the long one from Thurii, which has very peculiar characteristics), they display considerable unity. In general, they contain references to the other world: either indications about its "geography", greetings to the infernal gods, wishes that the soul of the deceased may find happiness in the Beyond, or else suggestions for help in finding it. They often include elements of dialogue, and the people who used them quite clearly hoped to obtain a special position in the other world, not so much thanks to the tablets themselves (although a gold object always possessed a certain value as a talisman or as a marker of identity), but because through them they are reminded what to do or say.

The substantive question most debated with regard to the tablets is the religious movement that sustained them, the ensemble of beliefs shared by those who bore them, and above all the question of whether or not we can consider it certain that this religious movement was identical with that which we know as Orphism.

Since the authors  return to this question in chapter 10, suffice it to say here that they were first described unequivocally as Orphic, until Wilamowitz adopted a position of extreme scepticism with regard to the existence of Orphism as a religious movement, in which he was followed by other authors. However, the subsequent appearance of various documents, such as other tablets, the bone tablets from Olbia, or the Derveni Papyrus, cast doubt on this hypercritical attitude. In the last few years, a number of highly regarded scholars have advanced more nuanced opinions on the subject.

Other problems have also arisen, such as the precise interpretation of the mystical formulas and the way in which such interpretation can illuminate the beliefs to which they make reference, what specific destiny the believers in this religion expected after death; whether or not the tablets go back to one and the same religious scheme and even, on the formal level, to the same original text of which they might be excerpta, or to a kind of archetype.

Furthermore the iconographical evidence can shed important light on certain aspects of what is narrated in these texts.

The arrangement the authors  have adopted for the texts, and on the organization of the commentary: The tablets may be structured thematically in various groups, based on the fact that some of them present texts that are very similar and even identical to each other.

The authors  structure these groups following what one might call the soul's transition toward the other world, since most of the tablets refer to various stages of its journey.

In the first group (which consists of the tablets from Hipponion, Entella, Petelia, and Pharsalus), the subject is the soul's arrival in the subterranean world, and what it must do to confront the trials which face it there, including the question of the guardians that watch over the fountain of Memory. An ample set of tablets from Crete is grouped together thematically with these, although they feature a greatly reduced text, limited to the guardians' question and the answer that must be given. The tablet conserved in the J. Paul Getty Museum, probably of Thessalian origin, has a very similar content (all of these are included in the first chapter). In the second chapter, the authors analyse the two nearly identical tablets from Pelinna, which present us with what we might call a "ritual of the dead": here, someone addresses the deceased, congratulating him because his death is a new birth. It is announced to him that he has the privilege of wine, and that he will share the happy destiny of the other initiates. In Chapter III, the authors study a tablet from Thurii in which the soul is guided in its path to the other world by a series of good wishes. There is no question of giving instructions to the deceased, but an external perspective is adopted, as if the soul's passage to Hades were seen from this world, and it were taken for granted that the deceased has achieved his objective. In chapter IV, the authors collect the tablets in which the soul presents itself before the goddess Persephone and, in its request to be received by her, refers to a large number of questions related to Orphic ritual and to the beliefs of the adepts of this religion. In chapter V, the tablet from Rome is examined, which one may consider as a variant of the preceding group, although, because it is much later, it presents some atypical features. Even more atypical is the "great" tablet from Thurii, studied in chapter VI, which the authors have called somewhat humorously (although without falsifying its nature overmuch) a "word search" for deceiving non-initiates. It seems to contain a series of significant terms from the Orphic message, surrounded by meaningless letters. In chapter VII they encounter two brief texts, discovered in Pherai, one of them containing passwords for acceding to the meadow of the blessed, and the other including a prayer, probably addressed to Persephone by a mystes, who declares that he has been initiated in several mysteries. In chapter VIII, the authors examine other, shorter tablets: two Cretan ones, with greetings to Pluto and Persephone, and others, found in various locations, which contain the name of a mystes and/or the sacred word, or some other indication of belonging to the god. They dedicate chapter IX to synthesizing what is said in the tablets on the souls' ultimate destiny, chapter X to the question of whether or not they are Orphic, chapter XI to non-Greek texts, earlier or later than the tablets, which feature typological coincidences with them, and chapter XII to problems of a literary nature that affect these documents. Two appendices are devoted to the edition of the texts and to significant iconographic references.