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Performing Immortality: Direct Address in Funerary Epigram and the Orphic Lamellae

Mark McClay

UC Berkeley

This paper argues for a limited generic relationship between the “Orphic” gold lamellae and inscribed funerary epigram, with particular attention to conventions of apostrophe and direct address as reflections of ritual practice in both genres. The lamellae are a collection of small gold tablets/leaves deposited in Greek graves of both men and women in the later Classical and Hellenistic periods. They appear to derive from Dionysiac initiatory cults (though other divinities, notably Persephone, figure prominently in their texts), and are inscribed with short poetic texts that guide the deceased through the underworld and offer promises of postmortem blessedness. These objects are among our most important direct evidence for a religious interest during the classical period in what might be called an “afterlife”: i.e. a lively continuation of the individual consciousness after death. Studies have stressed their significance as documents of belief and ritual language, and many scholars (e.g. Graf & Johnston 2013, Janko 1984) interpret them as mnemonic aids whose function was to inform the deceased of eschatological details and passwords (symbola) necessary to win a privileged place in the underworld.

This paper suggests widening the communicative frame of reference to include more fully the living ritual communities that performed rites of burial and initiation. To this end, it reexamines the lamellae through a limited generic comparison with the communicative fictions of funerary epigram (Schmitz 2010). The writing of epitaph and its generic concern with public memorialization are often invoked as a disanalogy for the private/esoteric writing of the gold leaves (e.g. Bañuls Oller 1997, Edmonds 2004: 33-4, Herrero 2011: 289-90, Betz 2011: 102-3). Yet the lamellae show significant lexical parallels with funerary inscriptions (noted e.g. by Pugliese Carratelli & Foti 1974, Scalera McClintock 1984, Ferrari 2011) and replicate the repertoire of fictional speech-forms (address, apostrophe, command, prosopopoeia, dialogue) generically associated with epigram. Recent scholarship on epigram has emphasized its interactive character and stressed the importance of its ritual associations (esp. Day 1989 and 2010): although the lamellae are not objects of public display, their association with ritual and especially with ritual language (see Obbink 2011, Graf & Johnston 2013: 137-166) offers a basis for a limited generic comparison with funerary epigram as analogous practices of ritualized sepulchral writing.

Private funerary epigrams of 4th-c. Attica (treated in Tsagalis 2008) represent a rhetorical development of widely attested conventions of classical and archaic verse epitaph, and particularly emphasize the deceased’s participation in a special social structure (i.e. the oikos) as a basis of his/her postmortem memorialization. During this period, direct address to the deceased in an anonymous speaking voice becomes increasingly popular in funerary epigram: epitaphs written in this style function as scripts or prompts for a spoken "interaction" between reader and deceased (Tsagalis 2008: 252-6; Vestrheim 2010: 75-8). 

In a separate 4th-c. context, the earliest gold lamellae similarly feature language in an undefined speaking voice addressed to the deceased: these include both words of guidance through the underworld and declarations of the initiate’s postmortem happiness. Like funerary epigram, the lamellae texts are concerned with establishing the deceased’s identity in terms of group membership: the deceased in the lamellae texts is presented as a member of a social-kinship structure that offers immortality (Herrero 2011). The forms of direct address used in the lamellae can be interpreted, on analogy with the speech-acts of epigram, as a performative articulation of collective identity linking the deceased with living ritual participants. Producers of the lamellae may have appropriated from epitaph the speech-form of address and the rhetorical emphasis on group/kinship identity, reapplying these conventions (in a very different writing practice) to a specifically telestic ritual context. Thus, while the cults associated with the lamellae diverged in certain important ways from Greek religious norms, the gold leaves still reflect some elements of familiar practical concerns associated with death and the ritual treatment of the deceased.

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Ritual and Magic

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