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An Infant μύστης at Pelinna? Evidence for the Initiation of Children into Bacchic-Dionysiac Mystery Cults

Colleen Kron

The Ohio State University

The enigmatic so-called “Orphic” gold tablets are material witnesses to the intersection between ritual texts and the lived experience of individuals initiated into the Greco-Roman mystery cults of Bacchus-Dionysos. The clearest evidence of this relationship is found in the two ivy-shaped lamellae from Pelinna in Thessaly, which name Βάκχιος directly (Graf & Johnston #26A & B). The two Pelinna tablets are typically considered as nearly-identical copies of the same archetypal ritual text, both belonging to the adult woman buried in the sarcophagus from which they were recovered (Tsantsanoglou & Parássoglou 1987). This paper, however, argues that one of these gold tablets (26B) should be associated with an initiated child, whose cremated remains were enclosed in a bronze kados and placed beside its (likely) mother in the same sarcophagus. By connecting the Pelinna B tablet to the child burial, re-reading the tablets as evidence for the particular experience of initiated individuals, and situating this experience in light of the multi-disciplinary evidence for child initiation, this paper provides new insights into the perplexing realm of Dionysiac mystery cults.

The Pelinna tablets have been published in numerous scholarly editions: Tsantsanoglou & Parássoglou (1987), Graf (1993), Pugliese & Carratelli (2003), Tortorelli & Ghidini (2006), Graf & Johnston (2007), Bernabé & Jiménez-San Cristóbal (2008), Tzifopoulos (2010), and Edmonds (2011). However, the significance of the child burial has not yet been explored, because all editions of the gold tablets either exclude the child’s presence entirely or misinterpret its archaeological context as a later, intrusive burial. Those publications which do mention the child, Edmonds (2011) and Tzifopoulos (2010), do not explore the textual and ritual implications of this scenario. Most importantly, none of the editions of the tablets seem to refer to the published excavation of the sarcophagus by Tziaphalias (1992), which describes the undisturbed burial of a mother and child.

More than 40 inscribed gold lamellae have been found across Greece and southern Italy; yet, the Pelinna tomb would be the only archaeological circumstance in which two nearly identical tablets were produced for a single individual. Associating the Pelinna B tablet with the child’s burial preserves the standard one-to-one relationship and allows for the identification of different ritual statuses achieved by the adult mother and her infant child. Furthermore, the child’s burial included a coin of Antigonos II Gontatas, which provides a terminus post quem for the Pelinna texts of approximately 275 BCE.

This new material context also encourages a revised reading of the two inscribed texts. The differences between the A and B texts are usually attributed to either the smaller size of the second tablet or scribal ineptitude. However, when associated with the child burial, Pelinna B is not to be understood as a hasty copy, but a thoughtfully composed ritual text that presents verses personalized for the individual initiate. Small variations and omissions now take on new meaning for understanding both ritual practice and the self-fashioning of initiates (e.g. Cosmopoulos 2005, Faraone 2013, Bremmer 2014).

A revised reading of the Pelinna B tablet also provides a new source for the practice of initiating children into Dionysiac mystery cults, as is attested in epigraphic, art-historical, and literary sources. The epigram addressed to a puer (CEL 1233) from Doxato clearly addresses an initiated child (Nilsson 1953), just as the terracotta reliefs from the Villa Farnesia depicts the initiation of a young boy (Matz 1964), and several Roman sarcophagi depict an infant carried in a liknon (Matz 1968-75). Furthermore, the literary evidence indicates that the initiation of children—frequently at risk for early death in the ancient world—was of comfort to their grieving parents, as is represented by passages in Plutarch’s Consolation ad Uxorem and Himerius’ Oratio VIII.

In conclusion, this paper re-interprets the textual and ritual significance of the gold lamellae from Pelinna in light of their archaeological context and thereby derives a new understanding of the initiation of children into Bacchic-Dionysiac mystery cults.

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Greek Religion

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