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Initiation – Death – Underworld. Narrative and Ritual in the Gold Leaves


Riedweg, Christoph (2011). Initiation – Death – Underworld. Narrative and Ritual in the Gold Leaves. In: Edmonds, Radcliffe G. The "Orphic" gold tablets and Greek religion: Further along the path. Cambridge, 219-256.

Abstract

INTRODUCTION I first came across the intriguing pieces made of gold in a seminar run by Walter Burkert in the winter semester 1978/9. Ever since then the scenery evoked on these strange little burial offerings, with all its highly suggestive details, has cast a spell on me: the House of Hades, with two springs off to the right; next to one of them a radiant cypress, over the other (the one fed by the Lake of Memory) guardians posted; moreover the soul, perishing from thirst: its dialogue with the guardians; a sacred path on which mystes and Βάκχοι are treading (heading wherever they may), and so forth. The various fragments of pictures and thoughts certainly stimulate our imagination and may induce one to sense a higher concept. However, uninitiated as we are, it is already difficult for us to clear up the puzzling ambiguity of single utterances – let alone to bring together all these elements into a coherent unity, or, as semioticians would put it, to create ‘monosemy’. Moreover, a comprehensive interpretation of these documents is hampered by the fact that even pure philological work in this case rather quickly seems to come to its limits. Already at a first glance, some of the leaves so far published display a closer relationship. This observation led Günther Zuntz, in his fundamental edition and philological exegesis of 1971, to distinguish between groups A and B. (I will leave aside in this place the isolated and quite peculiar C leaf, which has provoked different interpretations: while some scholars believe it to contain a magical text, others would look at it as a mystical item, in which the initiated could recognize, in the middle of meaningless characters, names and epithets of gods of the initiation, as well as some mystic formulas.) Since Zuntz’s work, the B group has been substantially augmented: for details I refer to Edmonds’ introduction in this volume. In view of some extensive literal correspondences, we should expect that at least the leaves closely related to each other may be traced back to a common archetype according to the rules of textual criticism. If it is possible with any, this seems feasible to a certain degree with the two Pelinna leaves, with A 2-3 from Thurioi and with the very short leaves B 3-9 from Crete and Thessaly. But already in the case of the B group as a whole one has to face remarkable difficulties, which in the case of the A group turn out virtually insuperable, particularly if the Pelinna leaves are included. This rather unpleasant state may be due to various reasons. On the one hand, a considerable number of leaves seem to be composite units, made up of mainly two heterogeneous ingredients: (1) a hexametrical poem about the underworld, and (2) cultic acclamations evocative of ritual actions (needless to say that these two elements ought to be separated in any attempt at reconstruction). On the other hand, we have to reckon with a peculiar situation of transmission. There are strong indications that at least some of the engravers did not work from written models, but rather out of memory. Moreover, both the engravers and the authors of the texts in their present form seem not to have ranked among the most erudite contemporaries of Plato and Aristotle, or (in the case of the ‘late arrival’ A 5) of Plotinus, as is suggested by the numerous writing errors and violations of metric rules. Finally, one has to bear in mind, that we are dealing here with functional texts, which hardly were subject to any central control, but could easily be altered according to the requirements and external circumstances. We should therefore not be too much surprised if occasionally we encounter discrepancies which we are unable to explain. They may well just reflect different concepts held by different groups. Still, there are not insignificant reasons to consider all gold leaves in the end as a unity, regardless of all differences concerning their individual form, their geographical, chronological, and socio-cultural provenance. KLAPPENTEXT The 'Orphic' gold tablets, tiny scraps of gold foil found in graves throughout the ancient Greek world, are some of the most fascinating and baffling pieces of evidence for ancient Greek religion. This collection brings together a number of previously published and unpublished studies from scholars around the world, making accessible to a wider audience some of the new methodologies being applied to the study of these tablets. The volume also contains an updated edition of the tablet texts, reflecting the most recent discoveries and accompanied by English translations and critical apparatus. This survey of trends in the scholarship, with an up-to-date bibliography, not only provides an introduction to the serious study of the tablets, but also illuminates their place within scholarship on ancient Greek religion.

Abstract

INTRODUCTION I first came across the intriguing pieces made of gold in a seminar run by Walter Burkert in the winter semester 1978/9. Ever since then the scenery evoked on these strange little burial offerings, with all its highly suggestive details, has cast a spell on me: the House of Hades, with two springs off to the right; next to one of them a radiant cypress, over the other (the one fed by the Lake of Memory) guardians posted; moreover the soul, perishing from thirst: its dialogue with the guardians; a sacred path on which mystes and Βάκχοι are treading (heading wherever they may), and so forth. The various fragments of pictures and thoughts certainly stimulate our imagination and may induce one to sense a higher concept. However, uninitiated as we are, it is already difficult for us to clear up the puzzling ambiguity of single utterances – let alone to bring together all these elements into a coherent unity, or, as semioticians would put it, to create ‘monosemy’. Moreover, a comprehensive interpretation of these documents is hampered by the fact that even pure philological work in this case rather quickly seems to come to its limits. Already at a first glance, some of the leaves so far published display a closer relationship. This observation led Günther Zuntz, in his fundamental edition and philological exegesis of 1971, to distinguish between groups A and B. (I will leave aside in this place the isolated and quite peculiar C leaf, which has provoked different interpretations: while some scholars believe it to contain a magical text, others would look at it as a mystical item, in which the initiated could recognize, in the middle of meaningless characters, names and epithets of gods of the initiation, as well as some mystic formulas.) Since Zuntz’s work, the B group has been substantially augmented: for details I refer to Edmonds’ introduction in this volume. In view of some extensive literal correspondences, we should expect that at least the leaves closely related to each other may be traced back to a common archetype according to the rules of textual criticism. If it is possible with any, this seems feasible to a certain degree with the two Pelinna leaves, with A 2-3 from Thurioi and with the very short leaves B 3-9 from Crete and Thessaly. But already in the case of the B group as a whole one has to face remarkable difficulties, which in the case of the A group turn out virtually insuperable, particularly if the Pelinna leaves are included. This rather unpleasant state may be due to various reasons. On the one hand, a considerable number of leaves seem to be composite units, made up of mainly two heterogeneous ingredients: (1) a hexametrical poem about the underworld, and (2) cultic acclamations evocative of ritual actions (needless to say that these two elements ought to be separated in any attempt at reconstruction). On the other hand, we have to reckon with a peculiar situation of transmission. There are strong indications that at least some of the engravers did not work from written models, but rather out of memory. Moreover, both the engravers and the authors of the texts in their present form seem not to have ranked among the most erudite contemporaries of Plato and Aristotle, or (in the case of the ‘late arrival’ A 5) of Plotinus, as is suggested by the numerous writing errors and violations of metric rules. Finally, one has to bear in mind, that we are dealing here with functional texts, which hardly were subject to any central control, but could easily be altered according to the requirements and external circumstances. We should therefore not be too much surprised if occasionally we encounter discrepancies which we are unable to explain. They may well just reflect different concepts held by different groups. Still, there are not insignificant reasons to consider all gold leaves in the end as a unity, regardless of all differences concerning their individual form, their geographical, chronological, and socio-cultural provenance. KLAPPENTEXT The 'Orphic' gold tablets, tiny scraps of gold foil found in graves throughout the ancient Greek world, are some of the most fascinating and baffling pieces of evidence for ancient Greek religion. This collection brings together a number of previously published and unpublished studies from scholars around the world, making accessible to a wider audience some of the new methodologies being applied to the study of these tablets. The volume also contains an updated edition of the tablet texts, reflecting the most recent discoveries and accompanied by English translations and critical apparatus. This survey of trends in the scholarship, with an up-to-date bibliography, not only provides an introduction to the serious study of the tablets, but also illuminates their place within scholarship on ancient Greek religion.

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Item Type:Book Section, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Department of Greek and Latin Philology
Dewey Decimal Classification:470 Latin & Italic languages
480 Classical & modern Greek languages
Language:English
Date:2011
Deposited On:06 Dec 2012 12:40
Last Modified:16 May 2016 08:05
ISBN:978-0-521-51831-4

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