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Reconsidering Allegoresis and Poetics in the Derveni Papyrus

Matthieu Réal

Cornell University

The Derveni papyrus, discovered in 1962 and recently critically edited (KPT), preserves portions of an early fourth-century BCE allegorical “commentary” on an Orphic hexametric cosmogony. Its anonymous author claims that Orpheus concealed a philosophical explanation of how the world came into being behind the stories concerning Zeus and other gods. Scholars have generally argued that the Derveni author’s approach to poetry stands in sharp contrast to later post-Aristotelian trends of reading literature (Struck: 29-39; Bouchard: 34-37). I contend that a reconsideration of the Derveni author’s exegetical solutions, in light of chapter 25 of Aristotle’s Poetics, suggests otherwise. In interpreting the Orphic poem, the Derveni author consistently employs exegetical techniques based on language and style that characterize later Aristotelian-Alexandrian trends of exegesis. The author’s attention to the poetics of the Orphic text is in keeping with his use of a quasi-lemmatic commentary, and provides evidence of a significant shift in the history of ancient allegoresis. By the fourth century, allegorists do not focus solely on the content of the myth, but also investigate the letter of the texts that preserve such myths.

In chapter 25 of the Poetics, Aristotle summarizes different approaches that can be adopted when confronting textual difficulties. Particularly relevant for my case are the solutions πρὸς τὴν λέξιν, (Ar. Poet. 1461a9-20), that is, solutions based on language and style (Combellack: 202-219). According to Aristotle, when an interpreter is at a loss as to the meaning of a line of poetry, he should consider whether the poet is employing any of the following: rare words, metaphors, homographs, uncommon word order, syntactical ambiguities, or idiomatic language. As Socrates' interpretation of Simonides’ Ode to Scopas in Plato’s Protagoras shows (Brittain: 41-58), these solutions πρὸς τὴν λέξιν, although likely first formalized by Aristotle, were already part of the toolkit of earlier textual critics contemporary to the Derveni author.

I demonstrate that all of the solutions πρὸς τὴν λέξιν mentioned by Aristotle are exploited, though in a different and earlier context, by the Derveni author. For instance, a metaphor, and not quasi-synonymy, as often argued, is at the core of the interpretation preserved in col. X, 1-10. Uncommon word division and idiomatic usage are explicitly advocated for, respectively, at VIII, 4-14, and XVIII, 3-7. Exegetical solutions based on rare words, e.g. ἄδυτος in its rare meaning of “never setting” (XI, 1-7), ambiguity, e.g. ἐκ τοῦ meaning both “following him” and “from that time” (XV, 6-10), and homographs, e.g. εας that can be read both as ἑᾶς and ἐᾶς (XXVI, 2-12), are also posited.

Thus interpreted, the Derveni papyrus is evidence that the Aristotelian-Alexandrian line of exegesis shares more in common with earlier forms of allegorical interpretation than previously admitted. By the early fourth-century, allegorists seek in the language and style of the text the basis for their philosophical interpretations. It is not surprising, therefore, that they incorporate the tools developed by contemporary textual critics into their examinations of myths.

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Philosophical Thought and Language

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