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The cult of the Erinyes in the Derveni Papyrus

Richard Janko

University of Michigan

The opening columns of the Derveni papyrus, an extraordinarily weird literary text of the late 5th century bce that was copied in the 4th century and rediscovered in 1962, present an extraordinary challenge to scholarship. The main body of the papyrus contains a commentary on an early Orphic theogony, wherein generations of gods succeed one another by means of violence and rape. The commentator holds that Orpheus is not impious, arguing that his poem does not mean what it appears to say, but in fact recounts the creation of the world in terms of Anaxagorean physics and a monotheist and monistic theology; he obtains this interpretation by applying methods of etymology and allegoresis that often strain modern credulity. At one point he interrupts his commentary to chide initiates into the Mysteries for not understanding the rites into which they pay to be initiated.

The purpose of all this escapes us, because the papyrus’ opening columns are badly damaged by the flames of the funeral pyre in which it was carbonized and thereby preserved. Enough survives to show that their contents were, as it seems, utterly different—divination from the flames of sacrifices, the consultation of oracles about the terrors of Hades, activities of the magoi and daimones, and the cult of the Erinyes and Eumenides; as if further to confuse us, the author throws in a quotation of Heraclitus about the size of the sun. A lively and ongoing dispute (see the papers in Papadopoulou and Muellner 2014) over the arrangement of the surviving fragments has resulted in very different reconstructions of the first three columns (Tsantsanoglou 1997, Janko 2008, Ferrari 2011ab, and Piano 2011, 2016ab, this last adopted by Laks and Most 2016). If we are to discover what common thread ties together the disparate contents of this remarkable text, the papyrus’ opening columns will yield it, and with it further clues to the intellectual and religious context within which the treatise was composed.  

Presenting digital images of the papyrus obtained by a new method, together with new joins between fragments, this paper will discuss a new text of the Derveni author’s analysis of the cult of the Erinyes, who, as he notes, receive ‘wineless’ libations, as we already knew from tragedy (Aeschylus Eumenides 107; Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 100), and will attempt to tease from it further clues as to the author’s purpose in writing his bizarre treatise.

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Ritual and Religious Belief

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