Introduction. Testing our Tools : Open Questions on the Derveni Papyrus

The Derveni Papyrus (DP from now on) should have never reached us. The oldest European “book” in our possession was meant to accompany forever the cremated body buried in Derveni Tomb A. It is our great luck that this papyrus roll containing an extraordinary text did not burn thoroughly. It awaited its accidental discovery during a public works project in an uninhabited place about 10 km from Thessaloniki, near a small ancient town called Lete, though not at its cemetery but in a graveyard about 2 km away. [1] The carbonized papyrus was discovered on the slabs covering Tomb A with other remains from the cremation of the deceased (cf. photos in Y. Tzifopoulos article, link). We owe to the mastery of P. Themelis, who was supervising the excavation, and of the Austrian conservator A. Fanckelman, the rescue of this rare (for a modern audience) piece of ancient thought.
There is no need to repeat here in detail the history of this extraordinary discovery, of the process of conservation and of the edition of the text. [2] The editio princeps (Olschki, 2006), by Th. Kouremenos, G. Parassoglou and K. Tsantsanoglou, contains 26 columns with 113 unplaced fragments, precious photographs of the papyrus, a translation and a commentary. An electronic version of the text is available at the CHS Derveni Papyrus site (here). A first unauthorized version of the DP text appeared in 1982 in the ZPE, followed by R. Janko’s Interim text (ZPE 141, 2002). In his contribution to this conference, W. Burkert, whose uninterrupted interest in the papyrus for 45 years has opened most paths of research on the subject, offers for the first time the “true story” about this episode of the DP scholarship. More progress has been made since the 2006 edition. R. Janko has published several articles with new arrangements of the first columns and new readings discussed by K. Tsantsanoglou in this volume (here). A. Bernabé, who published a critical edition and commentary in 2007, [3] presents in his paper important new readings and discusses new proposals from R. Janko and F. Ferrari affecting the six first columns. Bernabé’s reading of ornitheion luei instead of kaiein in col. VI, l. 11, removes a major difficulty regarding the classification of the ritual as Orphic (given that Orphics do not sacrifice living beings). Much awaited is the outcome of the multispectral “Imaging Derveni” Project, which was presented by Dirk Obbinck during the CHS conference. To help readers keep apace with new material, the CHS iMouseion Derveni Papyrus Project is developing a multiversion electronic edition of the DP, which will be regularly updated.
Papers in this volume cover a wide range of open questions. F.Graf, A. Bernabé, K. Tsantsanoglou, and Y. Tzifopoulos focus mainly on ritual whereas W. Burkert, C. Calame, E. Sistakou, and J. Rusten revisit the problem of the authorship, the authorial procedures and literary strategies. A. Bernabé and Fritz Graf offer a new analysis of possible contexts relative to the magoi. Y. Tzifopoulos provides a most instructive parallelism between Bacchic Orphic epistomia and the Derveni Papyrus as entaphia objects. Furthermore, in the papers of J. Rusten and Y. Tzifopoulos we find an interesting overview of the “semantics” of burials with books: can the papyrus included in grave goods be considered as a valid proof on the religious faith of the deceased? K. Tsantsanoglou updates and refines his positions on new arrangements of the text, its generic classification, and the profile of the author. Sarah Iles Johnston shifts the meaning of Aidou deina from “horrors of Hades” to “miseries inflicted on the living by the dead” and studies related oracular practices. C. Calame shows in his paper that an almost oracular vocabulary is used by the author in his exegesis of the intentions of Orpheus, who reveals by signs the supreme sacred truth (ta megala hierologeitai, VII 8). Taking Hippolytus’ prayer (Euripides Hippolytus, 73-87) as his point of departure, R. Hunter examines poetry as coded speech for the few and discusses related poetological ideas in the scholia. W. Burkert puts in perspective the interest in souls manifested by the author and shows that it is perfectly compatible with Presocratic philosophy, namely with what we know about Democritus. We are particularly indebted to W. Burkert and to K. Tsantsanoglou who, not being able to attend the Conference, accepted our offer to give an oral performance of their papers, the videos of which are part of this volume, together with transcripts and handouts.
Dating the DP is a complex issue. The Papyrus contains a multilayered text : description of a ritual, verses of a poem of Orpheus, exegesis of the author. As Walter Burkert, C. Calame, and Y. Tzifopoulos stress in this volume, one must keep in mind three different chronological issues : the date of the papyrus roll itself (mid-fourth century [4] ), the date of the poem of Orpheus (always conjectural, 6th century according to W. Burkert) and the date of the exegesis (end of 5th). It seems most likely that the work continued on more than one roll. The contents of the surviving roll present a particular thematic and structural division, which makes of this work a unicum among what we possess of ancient literary production of the period. The first six columns (3 are badly damaged by fire as they are written on what became the outer part of the roll) refer to propitiatory rituals aimed at appeasing souls. The VIIth column forms the transition to the other thematic unit, in which the author adduces verses of a poem of Orpheus and offers an interpretation, in the form of what we call by anachronism a commentary. Orpheus’s name appears clearly in the papyrus, twice in col. VIII.
The exegesis of the chthonic ritual is of a most peculiar kind compared to what we know. Supernatural entities receive well known traditional names — daimones, Erinyes, Eumenides — but as description and explanation of the ritual merge, the relation of those entities to souls is not clear. It seems as though the author describes the ritual acts only to subordinate them to his hermeneia, and this is extremely rare in that period. For instance, when he says that the Eumenides are souls (VI 9), it is not clear if he voices his own opinion or that of a larger group, religious/spiritual or intellectual or both. The ritual acts are sacrifice, libation, incantation, singing, prayer. While stressing, as Henrichs did in 1984, that ritual acts themselves seem “native,” Sarah Iles Johnston believes that the DP author’s ritual definitions are mostly innovations. In fact, nothing allows us to define ritual space and time, as E. Sistakou stresses in her paper. Furthermore, the absence of gods in this first part, especially the infernal ones, is a paradox which Bernabé explains as a rationalizing effort, probably linked to the monistic tendency of the author, to suppress multiple gods as addressees of the ritual (one can as well think of the unspeakable orgia related to the death of Dionysus and compare the reticence of Herodotus about recounting such myths). Nevertheless, following Martín-Hernández, Bernabé considers that the myth of the titanic crime against Dionysos is “the very ground of the ritual” and that poinên apodidontes in col. VI 5 refers to the ritual atonement of this act.
Who, then, are the performers of ritual in the DP? The author, the magoi, the mustai? Is the author referring to a specific occasion or does he give a general overview of ritual practices fitting his complex arguments? We can say for sure that the author pictures two types of officiants : mustai and magoi linked in an interesting manner which makes of the magoi the prototype of the action of the mustai. Mustai, says the author, address to the Eumenides a preliminary sacrifice in the manner of the magoi. Col VI, the best preserved one in the first part, contains 8 lines presenting the magoi as “able” (epōdê magōn dunatai) to “push away” or “make change” (depending on the translation chosen for methistanai), by their incantations, the daimones who are “enemies” of souls or “avengers”. Since R. Janko’s new rearrangements of cols. II and III (accepted by K. Tsantsanoglou) a new mention of the magoi has appeared in col. III where they are quoted as the authority asserting that the daimones observing the honors of the gods are their servants. In both cases, col. III and col. VI, the magoi appear as prestigious references in religious matters, as A. Bernabé and F. Graf show in their papers.
Who these magoi are is one of the major zetemata in the DP scholarship: Persian priests or Greek sorcerers? According to F. Graf, who evokes possible eastern contexts, the Derveni magoi are religious specialists claiming the Persian title for themselves. “It might be that after the Persian conquest of Lydia in 547 BCE … enterprising Persian magoi began to serve the needs of Greeks.” An overview of divergent opinions (Persian magoi, Orphic priests, charlatans?) can be found in A. Bernabé’s paper, who opts finally, as C. Calame and A. Bierl do, for Orphic officiants, “orpheotelestai,” a term attested outside “Orphic” literature in Greece, thus representing probably the “external,” sometimes hostile perspective, to be found in historians of religion, for instance, whereas magos could be used in the Orphic circles positively for the same type of officiant.
Is the author himself a ritual practioner? Is he himself, as some believe, a magos? Opinions are divided and wildly divergent: is he an atheist, an Orphic, an anti-Orphic, orpheotelest? Or a mantis (Tsantsanoglou)? Or an enlightened intellectual who mocks, at least in part, divinatory practices based namely on col. V (if we side with Janko 2008). Trying to define better the author’s profession as well as his philosophical and religious position, even if the authorship remains an open question, remains a most interesting exercise. The fact that the DP author explains ritual doesn’t necessarily make a telestes out of him, as KPT already stated in their Introduction (p. 52).
Our proceedings reopen the question of the authorship. W. Burkert and Tsantsanoglou revisit the question: the latter sides with C. Kahn, considering Euthyphro a good candidate. Comparing the views about souls in the DP with the scraps of information we have about Democritus’ interest in souls, Burkert plays with the idea of Democritus’s authorship, but dismisses it finally because the Nous in the Derveni papyrus is more Anaxagorean than Democritean. Burkert concludes by dismissing as well any ritual competence of the DP author by denying that he or his group is the subject of parimen in col V : “he is writing on the eonta”, an interesting writer among those earlier pre-Platonic thinkers of Greece”. C. Calame believes, on the contrary, that the orientation of the author’s exegesis is primary theological.
Unfortunately, the fragmentary state of the document does not offer a fully structured text and does not allow always proper connections between agents, actions, and concepts. We can say, though, that justice is a central theme. In col. IV, for instance, Erinyes are Dike’s epikouroi, the same column where we find the famous quotation of Heraclitus about Sun having to face Erinyes if he does not respect his own limits. In this Heraclitean quotation the Erinyes act as guardians of cosmic equlibrium, as assistants of Dike.
After having quoted the authority of Heraclitus on the relation between the Erinyes and Justice, most scholars believe that in the following column (V) the author refers to his own mantic craft and that he addresses a critique to those who do not believe in the horrors of Hades and in signs such as those transmitted by dreams: “On behalf of those persons we go to the oracle to ask if it is permitted not to believe…” Col. V (together with col. XX) are crucial in the scholarly debate on the profession and beliefs of the author. R. Janko, for instance, challenges the opinio communis by postulating that the author is an atheist (possibly Diagoras of Melos), and that in col.V [5] he is attacking those who believe in the horrors of Hades.
On the meaning of Aidou deina, S. Iles Johnston introduces important clarifications by examining the possible associations between horrors of Hades and divination and by showing that the author refers not to the punishments during afterlife but to miseries inflicted upon the living by the dead, a theme consistent with the previous ones (the theme of appeasement). Souls can ask the living, via dreams and oracles, to take care of neglected duties, such as funerary rites etc. As to the author being a mantis, Johnston admits the possibility of understanding the first person plural parimen (V 4) as referring to the general practice of the divinatory effort “wasted” by the attitude of the non-believers.
It seems difficult to reach an agreement on the question whether the DP author is a ritual practitioner or not. A closer look at Col. XX might help. Up to now scholarly analysis on this column focuses mostly on the issue of a different authorial voice in the paragraphos (lines 10-14) and on the critique of private initiations expressed in those lines. In this volume, J. Rusten’s paper maintains his 1985 analysis, as he explains in the appendix of his paper, whereas F. Graf is opposed to the idea of this paragraphos marking a quotation of a different author. Col XX though contains another, most important theme. Interrupting his lesson on gods and the universe, our author criticizes the way religious acts are performed in the public and private spheres by analyzing laconically the very mechanics of oral poetic performance and its reception : ou gar hoion te akousai homou kai mathein ta legomena, “one cannot hear and understand at the same time the legomena (XX.3)”. This extraordinary piece of information expresses a fundamental authorial principle operating throughout the DP text, a principle which gives the very raison d’être of the whole exegesis. By criticizing the formality of poetic performance in ritual, the author brings forth the very moment — mystic or not — of the hymnos performance and its mimetic enchantment, much criticized by the intellectuals. The author criticizes the oral reception of the poem during solemn occasions. In the second part of col. XX (l. 4-12 ), private initiations, which should respond better to specific needs as those are described by Adeimantos in his ironic discourse on magoi and agurtai (Republic 364b-365a), are described as equally inefficient. If we follow the DP author, exegesis should be part of the ritual as initiation should be part of the mathesis.
Fritz Graf deals at length with the relation of legomena to initiation and opts for a religious entrepreneur interested in physics. I think though that the exegesis allows a different perspective about the profile of the author and his audience. A secret circle of ginōskontes and a restricted audience interested primarily in physics seem to me a plausible option. Not only col. XX but the interpretation Air – Zeus in. col. XXIII (2-7) reveals the nature of what is mystic and what the interests of the ginōskontes can be. These theories are mystical, and they are part of the field of knowledge of the physiologoi, of the Peri phuseos literature. In col. XXIII mystic knowledge attached to theogony and ritual is physics, which might mean that the author tries to initiate his audience into the theories of his time while preserving the prestige of the poetic lexis.
It is time to take a closer look to the second thematic unit of the DP text. The first part of the DP describes a ritual space with no time or place, using the present of the ritual repetition, a dramatic present, as E. Sistakou underlines. From col. VII on the authorial voice continues in its role of teaching and explaining the deeper sense this time of Orpheus’s poem. [6] A. Bernabé insists upon the symmetry between the two parts of the DP text: description and explanation are interwoven. No specific association, though, is mentioned between drômena and legomena. No certainty about the ritual occasion can be established. F. Graf considers that the Poem was the legomena in some Bacchic ritual, but not the exegesis.
Pleading for the necessity of the onomatōn lusis, the author develops an exegesis “word by word,” on a poetry that he qualifies as “strange” and “enigmatic,” commenting upon the intentions of Orpheus, who expresses “great things” in a coded language (ainigma, ainizomai), studied in detail in this volume by A. Bierl. Twenty columns, better preserved than the first six, deal with the exegesis of verses quoted from the Orphic poem. These verses recount a version or an episode of the theogonic myth of succession focused on Zeus’ power and predominance, whereas their exegesis deals mainly with the theme of violence and aims at underplaying it. The tendency is monistic, the world of today is Zeus’ creation. The narrative stops abruptly at col. XXVI with the theme of incest. It is possible, as A. Bernabé says, that the missing part, consumed by the funerary pyre, referred to the most mystic theme, Dionysos, the Titans and the birth of Persephone, according to the principle of symmetry between the two parts (especially if poinên apodidontes in col. VI is an elliptic reference to the Titans’crime).
Combining theology with physics the author reveals the hidden correspondence between the Orphic lexis and the history of the universe. From col. IX on, divine succession becomes a process of onomatothesia representing the evolution of the different cosmic phases, following the principles of what we call Presocratic physics. The author unravels the ainos (in fact, what we translate by “allegorizing” is ainizomai in the text) [7] : there is no violence and no succession. The different stages of the cosmogony receive distinct divine names, but there is only one god and one evolving universe. The Heraclitean image in col. IV, for instance, is probably linked to the primordial state of excessive heat, which, according to the DP exegetic vocabulary, where names carry hidden meanings, this cosmic phase corresponds to the divine name of Kronos and is prior to our universe, which receives the name Zeus, and owes its stability to the fact that sun/heat is under control.
Physics attached to poetics alter radically the signifié of gods’ names and their “biography” : for instance, Kronos is nous and krouo, the Nous who makes the particles collide in a cosmos subdued by excessive heat (col XIV). Zeus is the creator of the nun metastasis because he symbolically represents control over excessive heat, thus allowing the universe to take its stable form, or as Hesiod would express it for Gaia to become hedos asphales aiei. Words can be pronounced, says the author, but they will not be understood just because they are pronounced. It is this very point about utterance versus comprehension of sacred or mystic meanings related to physics, which seems to me decisive as regards the “professional” profile of the author, who insists upon the importance of manthanein, of comprehending tradition and science, both mystic, both demanding knowledge and teaching.
In column XXIII the author comments upon Okeanos, which is not a river despite the expression euru rheonta, which has other meanings than “flow.” According to the author the expression signifies “he who has great force.” So Okeanos, continues the author, is not a river, it is a mystic name for air. [8] Furthermore in the same column the expression en tois legomenois kai nomizomenois rhemasi in line 8 can be read as a formula meaning not just “everyday and conventional language” (KPT translation), as both words are technical terms for poetry and ritual. In modern terms we would formulate the meaning as follows: Orpheus uses the “traditional religious language” which is part of the civic religious conventions (the rhemata he uses are legomena and nomizomena, they are not a neoteric arrangement such as the Parmenidean Peri phuseos). Choosing the traditional conventions familiar to all, Orpheus intends to dissimulate completely the truth in the form of poetic ainigmata. The DP author respects these legomena kai nomizomena, but in the Socratic language these would be the “ugly lies” of the great poets (Republic 377e).
What are the implications of such a distinction between exoteric hermeneia , like that of the Ephesian rhapsode in Plato’s Ion, and esoteric exegesis for the “few” ginōskontes? In order to reconsider the question on a new basis, we should not just oppose public celebrations and private or public initiations. J. Rusten in this volume formulates the paradox nicely: “public and private initiation are both unsatisfactory. The reader is left to wonder, is there any way to be initiated successfully?” I think that the DP, namely col. XXIII, contains the answer, while offering a new perspective to understand the relation between mystic and non-mystic in poetic performances.
At this point the comparison of the DP hermeneutic practices with the Hellenistic commentaries of Homer proves useful but not for the reasons usually evoked. Let’s remind ourselves of the controversy on the edition of Homer between Alexandria and Pergamon, between Crates and Aristarchus. [9] Most important in this regard is the Okeanos theme, on which I will focus once again for the purposes of the present argument, taking the example of XIV 246 and 246a : the double-verse variant was adopted by Crates but not by Aristarchus. [10] Behind this apparently trivial philological matter lie fundamentally different cosmological conceptions. This should not surprise us, when we realize that the cosmos’s poetic “geography” is divine and that for the polloi Okeanos is a river encircling the earth. For Crates the Earth was spherical, and this was the criterion of authenticity of the plus verses, conveying the image of water on the surface the earth. The editorial vision of Crates reflects an Orphic phase in the evolution of the Homeric tradition as, G. Nagy shows. [11]
It seems to me that the Derveni Papyrus offers another way of understanding the deep roots of such a controversy, a kind of a precious missing link in the long chain where poetry, science, and philosophy evolve in close dialogue. The key locus is col XXIII, l. 1-7:

The verse is composed as to be misleading; it is unclear to the many, but quite clear to those who have correct understanding, that “Oceanus” is the air and that air is Zeus. Therefore it was not another Zeus who contrived Zeus, but the same one contrived for himself “great might.” But the ignorant ones think that Oceanus is a river, because he adds “wide-flowing.” He, however, indicates his own opinion in everyday and conventional language (translation by KPT of legomena kai nomizomena).
These lines show the mystical nature of the peri phuseos exegesis, or, as A. Bierl puts it, “the double-level riddling”: the Orphic verse is obscure but not secret, [12] whereas the hermeneia (what we call “commentary”) is for the few. The moment where Okeanos is equated with Air / Zeus belongs to the sphere of knowledge not open to everybody. This phrasing is in itself “a hidden meaning.” Science here is not exoteric. We are reminded of the Hippocratic law (section 5) : “sacred things are to be shown to sacred persons: to the profane this is not permitted before they are initiated to the orgia epistemes.” [13] We can also recall Socrates in the Phaedrus defending oral speech against writing (276a 5-7), λόγον… ς μετ πιστήμης γράφεται ν τ το μανθάνοντος ψυχ , δυνατ ς μ ν μ ναι αυτ , πιστήμων δ λέγειν τε κα σιγ ν πρ ς ο ς δε . “Pay without learning”, “hear without understanding” : the author’s criticism is radical. He seems to deplore recitations of poetry and rituals which are dissociated from places and occasions of a specific kind of knowledge. We cannot say if the DP author describes a phase synchronic with him or if he refers, through a historic perspective, to restricted circles of the past, who practiced ritual, poetry and “philosophy” in a way attested in testimonia about Pythagoras’ teaching.
We can now envisage briefly the much debated issue of the generic classification of the work contained in the papyrus, an open question relevant as well to the professional profile of the author. Although difficult to classify, is this text as unusual as it is claimed to be? Further progress on this subject could be made, though only if we suspend for a moment anachronisms, such as the term “commentary,” and try to reconstruct a synchronic model of similar practices using terminology internal to our ancient sources.
As we saw, both parts of the DP treatise, drômena and legomena, including the authors’ exegesis, link in a clearly didactic manner both traditional poetry and eschatological ritual with the theme of justice. Following this thread we can spot decisive clues about “genre” in col V. The DP authors’ critical stance in this column suggests that the deina Aidou must have been a subject of vivid debate in that period and that the controversy must have been far-reaching, as deina coming from chthonic forces were traditionally considered to be crucial for the survival of the polis (cult of the ancestors, plagues, famines etc) : as Sarah Iles Johnston shows, sometimes the oracles’ advice was needed in order to remove miseries that the dead were supposed to inflict upon the living, Oedipus being the most famous literary example. Walter Burkert offers important insights on the issue of “genre” with his article on a Democritus interested in ghosts, souls and afterlife. Protagoras and Democritus are said to have written treatises about Hades, but we only have indirect and scanty information about them. In a totally different setting, Aristophanes’ Frogs mirror in a superbly comic way, contemporary interests in otherworldly matters.
Can we then imagine possible settings for such debates or treatises? The fact is that we do not even need to try very hard: the Republic of Plato offers a remarkable literary paradeigma of an extensive “treatise in the treatise” on Aidou deina, which presents some common ingredients with the DP. Placed in its wider context within the same dialogue, the famous “critique of poetry” is in fact a detailed discussion of Homeric verses principally referring to gods, daimones, heroes, to death, to lamentation and to the underworld. The “author” is Socrates himself. Time has come I think to reconsider the statement about an un-Platonic DP author, and consequently the relation between the Platonic dialogues and the Derveni text : the DP author can be “un-Platonic,” but he is not “un-Socratic.” The parallels prove interesting if we keep firmly in mind the distinction between what we moderns mean by Platonic and what Plato stages as been clearly Socratic.
In books II and III of the Republic, Socrates promotes his idea about happiness in death by reciting and commenting on Homeric verses related to the deina Aidou (386b-387a ). The main Socratic message is that Hades is not a dreadful place and that death should not be source of lamentation and despair for the living. Books II, III and X are part of an apparently crucial debate on the religious impact of traditional poetry and on how Greeks perceived the afterlife. The fact that these “books” belong to a famous Platonic dialogue [14] should not impede us from experimentally classifying them as a kind of subgenre in the same category as Protagoras, Democritus and the DP authors’ treatises on the Horrors of Hades.
What Socrates does here is criticize the ritual representations of traditional poetry during public festivals of the polis, rejecting as false the canonical image of Hades as staged in ritual enactments of traditional poetry. Hence my first point: The terrors of Hades are not only ghosts, Empousai and all other forms of everyday superstition. The main target of Socrates is the canonical poetic image of the underworld endorsed by the civic religious authorities and by the average Athenian, as pictured in Aristophanes’ Clouds.
I do not intend to minimize the differences between Platonic and Dervenian approaches. Derveni scholarship uses quite frequently material from Plato in a fragmentary way (especially Republic 364b-365a about magoi and agurtai), albeit always under the verdict of an un-Platonic DP author. In this volume A. Bernabé, F. Graf, J. Rusten, and Y. Tzifopoulos offer interesting thoughts on the topic, stressing either divergences like the difference of attitude towards ritual, or highlighting convergences, such as the moralizing tendencies of both thinkers. But as I already said, going a step further and experimenting with a more systematic approach [15] might really deepen our understanding of the work and its context. As we all know, the Republic is about justice. If we take a closer look to the thematic structure of the dialogue though, it appears that death and the underworld frame the discussion in a decisive way. The myths on Hades are present from the very first scene. Furthermore, the Republic ends on a similar setting, a Socratic Nekuia (distinguished expressis verbis from the Odyssean one by Socrates : “I will not recite the Alkinou apologous,” 614b), a story which is meant to correct the traditional poetry’s image of Hades . In the meantime the deina Aidou (386b) theme doesn’t disappear : it forms the nuclear theme of “the Platonic critique of poetry”, books II and III.
The very first scene of the Republic is focused on the theme of the old man close to death represented by Kephalos. He is the one to mention the myths of Hades and to relate them to Justice as part of an important and controversial subject in people’s lives:

εὖ γὰρ ἴσθι, ἔφη, ὦ Σώκρατες, ὅτι, ἐπειδάν τις ἐγγὺς ᾖ τοῦ οἴεσθαι τελευτήσειν, εἰσέρχεται αὐτῷ δέος καὶ φροντὶς περὶ ὧν ἔμπροσθεν οὐκ εἰσῄει. οἵ τε γὰρ λεγόμενοι μῦθοι περὶ τῶν ἐν
ιδου, ὡς τὸν ἐνθάδε ἀδικήσαντα δεῖ ἐκεῖ διδόναι δίκην, καταγελώμενοι τέως, τότε δὴ στρέφουσιν αὐτοῦ τὴν ψυχὴν μὴ ἀληθεῖς ὦσιν: καὶ αὐτός—ἤτοι ὑπὸ τῆς τοῦ γήρως ἀσθενείας ἢ καὶ ὥσπερ ἤδη ἐγγυτέρω ὢν τῶν ἐκεῖ μᾶλλόν τι καθορᾷ αὐτά—ὑποψίας δ᾽ οὖν καὶ δείματος μεστὸς γίγνεται καὶ ἀναλογίζεται ἤδη καὶ σκοπεῖ εἴ τινά τι ἠδίκησεν. ὁ μὲν οὖν εὑρίσκων ἑαυτοῦ ἐν τῷ βίῳ πολλὰ ἀδικήματα καὶ ἐκ τῶν ὕπνων, ὥσπερ οἱ παῖδες, θαμὰ ἐγειρόμενος δειμαίνει.
“For let me tell you, Socrates,” he said, “that when a man begins to realize that he is going to die, he is filled with apprehensions and concern about matters that before did not occur to him The tales that are told of the world below and how the men who have done wrong here must pay the penalty there, though he may have laughed them down hitherto, [330e] then begin to torture his soul with the doubt that there may be some truth in them. And apart from that the man himself either from the weakness of old age or possibly as being now nearer to the things beyond has a somewhat clearer view of them. Be that as it may, he is filled with doubt, surmises, and alarms and begins to reckon up and consider whether he has ever wronged anyone. Now he to whom the ledger of his life shows an account of many evil deeds starts up even from his dreams like children, again and again in affright and his days are haunted by anticipations of worse to come.

Of particular interest to the reader of the DP is the fact that Kephalos states explicitly the existence of a frequently ironic attitude towards this kind of myth, especially by younger people. Later on, Socrates will come back to this important issue in the section featuring his close reading of poetry, even if Kephalos is not there, having left a klēronomos logōn (331d ) to replace him in the discussion.

Leaving for another occasion a closer look at Socrates’ Homeric quotations, I would like to refer briefly to two more fundamental themes in the Republic, which allow a closer comparison between Socrates’ “treatise” on poetry, gods and the Terrors of Hades, and the DP treatise, making the latter less “unusual” than generally claimed. Firstly, let me recall that theogonic myths are part of the debate in books II and III; Socrates critical attitude to poetry focuses on theology, namely on gods and heroes in performance. He shows that mimesis as impersonation results in bringing gods on the scene who do not resemble to gods, says Socrates (anomoiōs). [16] Reenacting their epic presence and uttering what is supposed to be their own words is taken at face value by the polloi. As in the DP, gods cannot be subject to human faults and passions. Even if their solutions diverge, Socrates and the DP author share a concern about poetic language not conveying the truth and about the need to handle in one way or another its provocative — literal — content. Nevertheless, even Socrates leaves a last chance to the “ugly lies” of Homer and Hesiod on the megista.

οὐδ’ ἂν εἰ ἦν ἀληθῆ ᾤμην δεῖν ῥᾳδίως οὕτως λέγεσθαι πρὸς ἄφρονάς τε καὶ νέους, ἀλλὰ μάλιστα μὲν σιγᾶσθαι, εἰ δὲ ἀνάγκη τις ἦν λέγειν, δι’ ἀπορρήτων ἀκούειν ὡς ὀλιγίστους, θυσαμένους οὐ χοῖρον ἀλλά τι μέγα καὶ ἄπορον θῦμα, ὅπως ὅτι ἐλαχίστοις συνέβη ἀκοῦσαι.
Public performances of traditional poetry open to “all publics” should not be allowed, as its deeper meaning is unaccessible to aphronas and neous, who take literal meaning at face value. The violent myth of succession is for the ears of the oligistoi and demands a mystic setting and a costly sacrifice. Socrates considers that for this type of legomenon a special ritual occasion should be created and a special public should be allowed to attend. The DP text could be the description of such an alternative setting.
If we use ancient categories and terms, the DP authors’ “commentary” belongs to the discourses Peri phuseos. Even on this uncharacteristic (of Socrates) ground, the Okeanos theme offers one more important connection with the Platonic dialogues. The way the DP author builds his argument somewhere between theogonic poetry and physics doesn’t differ much from the procedures used by Socrates when he interweaves physics with Homeric and Orphic verses about Okeanos and Tethys in the Theaetetus (180d): “… we have on the one hand a tradition that derives from the ancient ones, who hid their meaning by way of poetry – a tradition that says that the genesis of all things, Okeanos and Tethys, happen to be flowing streams (rheumata) and that nothing is static… “. In the Cratylus (402d), Hermogenes asks Socrates to explain his etymology of the name Tethys after having commented on the famous Iliadic verse XIV 201 and 302 about Okeanos and Tethys, fathers of gods. Socrates answers : “Well, this name comes very close to saying what it is. It is a mystical name (epikekrummenon) of a spring, since that which is strained and filtered sounds like a spring, and the name Tethys is composed by these two words” (translations by G. Nagy). [17]
Understanding divine names and their physical explanation is the second level of access to the meaning of the poetic hierologein. Plato in the Theaetetus stages a Socratic discourse interweaving poetry and physics, by detecting Heraclitean principles in the deeper meaning of the poetic divine names that relate to the concept of fluidity. The method differs but some important topics are shared : the DP author could be Socrates’ interlocutor, but we cannot locate him in time and space, any more than we can locate the rituals and the poetic performance he describes. His work, though, can contribute greatly in testing the tools we have used up to now in order to reconstruct ancient Greek religious and intellectual life.


[ back ] 1. Cf. KPT, Introduction, p. 2, with bibliography.
[ back ] 2. See the introduction in KPT and Burkert’s article in this volume.
[ back ] 3. Poetae epici graeci. Testimonia et fragmenta, Pars II, fasc. 3, Musaei Lini Epimenidis frgamenta. Papyrus Derveni. Addenda et Corrigenda. Indices. Berolini — Novi Eboraci, 2007.
[ back ] 4. KPT, p. 9
[ back ] 5. Following his new reading of lines 5-6 (ZPE 166, 2008, p. 50).
[ back ] 6. There is no doubt about the existence of Orpheus’ name in the DP. It is clearly discernible twice in Column VIII.
[ back ] 7. On ainos in Greek literature, see G. Nagy, “Mythe et prose en Grèce archaïque,” in C. Calame, ed., Métamorphoses du mythe en Grèce ancienne, Genève, 1988, pp. 229-242.
[ back ] 8. Following the lines about Acheloos and reflecting the ancient debate about primeval waters, on which D. Sider adduces interesting quotations in this volume.
[ back ] 9. In what follows, I rely on the more lengthy analysis made by G. Nagy in Homer the Classic, Washington, 2009, chapter 2 (hereafter HC).
[ back ] 10. G. Nagy, HC, p. 265.
[ back ] 11. G. Nagy, HC, p. 267.
[ back ] 12. See R. Martin’s arguments on the public character of Orphic poetry, in “Rhapsodizing Orpheus,” Kernos 14 (2001), pp. 23-33.
[ back ] 13. M. L. West, “Hocus –pocus in East and West,” in A. Laks and G. Most, Studies in the Derveni Papyrus, Princeton, 1997, p. 89.
[ back ] 14. Non obstat the debate about the authenticity of Book X.
[ back ] 15. Such an approach shows that Homer is already commented upon as a theologian in the Platonic works, pace Tzifopoulos in this volume.
[ back ] 16. G. Nagy, Poetry as Performance, Cambridge, 1966, pp. 39-86. I. Papadopoulou, “Poètes et (philo)sophoi: Pour une archéologie de la mimesis,” in id. (ed.), Pensées présocratiques III, Revue de philosophie ancienne, 2006 (1), pp. 3-16.
[ back ] 17. On the DP and Socrates’ analysis of the Homeric and Orphic verses on Okeanos, see G. Nagy, HC, p. 253 ff. On a possible connection between the DP and the Cratylus, see T. Baxter, The Cratylus. Plato’s Critique of Naming. Leiden, 1992, pp. 130-139.