You are here

New Readings in the Derveni Papyrus

Richard Janko

The Derveni papyrus was found in 1962. Although it contains sensational new evidence for Hellenic religious and philosophical views in the late fifth century BCE, it was published, with the infrared photographs of Makis Skiadaressis, only in 2006 (Kouremenos, Parássoglou and Tsantsanoglou 2006, = KPT). Little progress has been made subsequently. Multispectral images were made (Alessio 2006), but these remain unavailable even to the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki where the papyrus is kept (D. Ignatiadou, pers. comm. 2014). The earliest set of infrared photographs by Spyros Tsavdaroglou is still unpublished. Even the reliability of KPT has been doubted, because there have been no independent reports by which to test it. The overall significance of the text continues to be disputed. It depends above all on the correct reconstruction and interpretation of the opening, which is controversial (Piano 2011), and of column 20. Hence the treatise has variously been ascribed to a presocratic freethinker (Janko 2008) or to a credulous mantis commenting on Persian religion (Ferrari 2011a, 2011b).

Study of the original papyrus, the infrared photographs and the conservation archive in Thessaloniki in April 2014, with the generous assistance of the Museum, reveals that KPT is generally reliable, although it omits one small piece (A10) and has misplaced others. The papyrus is in stable condition, except that the pieces in Frame 5 (E1–13) have suffered serious cracking since it was first photographed (and a number of the photographs are missing). Pace Tsantsanoglou (2013), there are no column-numbers in the upper margins; these are only cracks, fibres and shadows. Instead, there is a stichometric omicron in the left margin of column 6. A marginal chi and several corrections have also been missed. Hence the papyrus was a full-length book-roll written by a professional scribe.

Carbonized papyri are always the hardest to read, but advances in digital microscopy have permitted a better reading of faint or damaged letters throughout. The standard text is mostly confirmed, since it turns out that KPT often use dotted letters to indicate letters that are damaged but certain. However, autopsy confirms numerous proposals that KPT rejected, and at times offers totally unexpected readings. Tto the extent that time permits, a selection of them will be presented and documented with microphotographs. There is hope that, with a more precise reading of the unplaced fragments, more of them will be able to be restored to their correct places in the roll.

More of the fragment of Heraclitus (3+94DK) in column 4 can be read and reconstructed: “The sun, in accord with the nature of its course ([δρό]μου), is the breadth of a human foot, not waxing beyond its size; for if it exceeds its own breadth at all, the Erinyes, allies of justice, will discover it, [so that it may not] make [a course] that is excessive [in size].”

The controversial column 5 matches no previous reconstruction exactly: “For them we will enter the prophetic shrine to ask, with regard to what is prophesied, whether they are doing rightly. Why do they disbelieve that there are terrors in Hades? Since they do not understand dream-visions or all the other things, what sort of proofs would make them believe? When they are overcome by error and pleasure as well, they suddenly comprehend so that they believe.”

In column 6 not “prayers” (εὐ]χ̣α̣ί) but “barley-cakes” (μᾶ]ζα̣ι) placate the souls.

The second verse of the Orphic poem is partly legible in column 7: “Orpheus” announced his topic as the bold deeds of Zeus.

The controversy over τότε or τόδε in column 13 is decided in favor of τότε.

The ends of columns 18–20 are changed. That of 18 is extremely weird, that of 19 uses atomist terminology, while that of 20, where the author turns from insulting the initiates to the Orphic narrative of Zeus’ multiple rapes, can be read with greater confidence.

Session/Panel Title:

Ancient Books: Material and Discursive Interactions

Session/Paper Number

78.1

Share This Page

© 2018, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy