You are here

Appeasing Souls and Removing Hindering Daimones: Column VI of the Derveni Papyrus and its Religious Significance

Valeria Piano

The present paper intends to analyze the religious account contained in col. VI of the Derveni Papyrus in order to shed new light on the peculiar beliefs related to sacrifices described by the author. The final aim of the analysis is to show that the demonological, theological, and soteriological conceptions implied by the text, as well as the sacrificial actions correlated with them, make the Derveni papyrus interesting evidence for ‘lived’ religion, allowing us to reconsider the reliability of some later sources on mystery movements, and to rectify some common views on ancient Orphism.

Starting from the ritual it is important to notice that some apparently odd sacrificial choices find a clear explanation in the light of the religious conceptions to which they are related. The absence of wine in the χοαί offered to the souls, for instance, is entirely coherent with the identification between Eumenides and ψυχαί stated by the author (ll. 9-10). Analogously, the lack of meat offerings is in perfect agreement with the characterization  of  the  sacrifices  for  the  Eumenides  as  prothymata,  that  is  preliminary  sacrifices (ll.  8-9: µύσται | Εὐµεν̣ίσι προθύουσι κ[ατὰτ]α̣̣ὐτὰ µάγοις).

Bearing in mind these elements, it is interesting to understand whether this text can provide new evidence to strengthen the hypothesis advanced by Fritz Graf according to which wineless libations, often performed during preliminary sacrifices, have the function of stressing a transitional moment or a marginal situation. Indeed, the very same categories of transition and marginality seem to play a pivotal role with regard to the hindering daimones(δαίµονες ἐµποδών), who appear in the opening lines as creatures disturbing the souls who need to be appeased. In spite of the lack of exact parallels, these demons resemble the supernatural figures who, standing on Hades’ thresholds, interfere with a safe passage of the souls to the Underworld (e.g. Empousa in Aristophanes’ Frogs). But, in addition to being related to an afterlife dimension, such a religious scenario appears equally meaningful in connection with mystery initiation. Considering initiation to sacred mysteries as a rite that involves an imitatio mortis, it is  worth  analyzing  the  possible  points  of  contact between daimones empodon of col. VI and the threatening creatures that, according to later sources (cf. e.g. D. Chr. IV 90; Plut. fr. 178; Iamb. Myst. 3.31, 178.8;), appeared during mystery rites, also to impede the realization of the initiatory rite.

In this regard, it is important to examine more in depth the twofold meaning of the verb µεθιστάν̣αι (l. 3), by means of which the author seems to imply that the enchanting song of the magi has the double effect of removing the hindering daimones, and of changing them into something else, presumably into benevolent creatures, like the Eumenides who appear in the following lines. Such an appeasing effect of the ritual, if analyzed in  the light of the analogical pattern  between living and dead which characterizes the  column, clarifies both the description of impeding demons as avenging souls (l. 4), and the attitude of expiation (l. 5: ὡ̣σ̣περεὶ ποινὴν̣ ἀποδιδόντες) assumed by the magi while performing sacrifices. Then the ποινήmentioned by the author assumes a more coherent meaning if understood in strict relation to such sacrificial dynamics, rather than in connection with the primordial guilt allegedly inherited by humankind after the sparagmos of Dionysos by the Titans, as proposed by some scholars.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Greek Personal Religion

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy