Further Along the Path:
Recent Approaches to the "Orphic" Gold Tablets


I am parched with thirst and I perish. 

But give me to drink from the ever-flowing spring on the right, by the cypress.

"Who are you? Where are you from?" 

I am the son of Earth and starry Heaven.

(gold tablet B4 from Crete = OF 479 BernabŽ)


                  "Who are you?" ask the unnamed guardians, as the deceased begs for the water of Memory. "Where are you from?"  From the discovery of the first gold lamellae in the 19th century to the most recent discoveries, scholars have asked much the same questions about the tablets themselves: Who are the people who chose to have these enigmatic scraps of gold foil buried with them in their graves? Where do these texts come from? How can we reconstruct the religious context of these mysterious texts?

                  Recent discoveries have prompted scholars to examine from new theoretical perspectives both the contexts in which the tablets were produced and the structures of the texts themselves.  This collection brings together in English a number of previously published and as yet unpublished studies of the "Orphic" Gold tablets, making accessible to a wider audience some of the new methodologies being applied to the study of the tablets.  In addition, a survey of the trends in the scholarship and a compilation of the recent bibliography not only provides an introduction to the serious study of the tablets, but also illuminates the place of these tablets within the scholarship of ancient Greek religion. The intended audience of the collection is primarily scholars and graduate students interested in the detailed issues in the scholarship, on the model of Laks & Most's volume on the Derveni Papyrus.  While the texts and critical apparatus would make it usable in a graduate level seminar on ancient religions involving the Greek texts, the collection of critical essays would be most useful to scholars doing research on the tablets and the religious contexts of which they were a part.

                  The introductory essay briefly traces the scholarship on the tablets from the discovery of the Thurii tablets in 1879 to the present.  Although the first tablet was discovered over forty years earlier, it was not considered 'Orphic' until the Thurii tablets were found and analyzed by Comparetti.  After Comparetti, the tablets quickly became central to the reconstructions of Orphism undertaken in the first decades of the 20th century by scholars such as Dieterich, Rohde, Harrison, and Kern.  In the wake of these reconstructions, the scholarship divided into two camps, the PanOrphist and the Orpheoskeptic.  While the latter denied that Orphism ever existed as a coherent religious movement, the former developed the picture of a dogmatic religion whose sectaries and doctrines influenced Greek religion and culture from the Pisistratids to Plato to Paul.  The gold tablets remained central to the debate.  In his superb critical work, The Arts of Orpheus, the skeptic Linforth pointedly omitted the tablets and refused even to discuss them as Orphic, while Guthrie relied on their testimony at crucial points in his Orpheus and Greek Religion, a balanced and scholarly restatement of the PanOrphist position.  The discovery of the Hipponion tablet in 1975 provided the impetus for a new wave of studies on the tablets, which took into account the new methodologies developed for the study of Greek religion.  Since 1975, the corpus of gold tablets has nearly doubled, and new varieties of text have appeared.  Recently, the debate between the skeptics and the PanOrphists has been renewed, especially in the works of BernabŽ, Brisson, and Edmonds, and once again, the tablets are central to the debate.  However, scholars have also made use of new literary critical methodologies and interdisciplinary approaches, so that there is not only new material being discussed but also new ways in which the material is analyzed.  The essays in the volume represent some of these new approaches.

                  BernabŽ, as part of his monumental new edition of the Orphic fragments, has provided new critical editions of all the texts of the tablets, but more tablets continue to be added to the corpus.  This volume includes an updated version of BernabŽ's texts, along with a critical apparatus and updated bibliography on each of the texts.  In addition, there is an English translation of these difficult and often fragmentary texts.  BernabŽ's essay in this volume, written in conjunction with JimŽnez, summarizes in English many of the conclusions from their recent book in Spanish on the gold leaves.  BernabŽ is the leading exponent of the new PanOrphist position, arguing for a fairly coherent religious movement with definable doctrines that can be seen in the gold tablets. 

                  Several of the other essays place the gold tablets within specific cultural contexts.  Betz's essay,  translated into English from the version published in a festschrift for Walter Burkert, examines the tablets in a broader philosophical and religious context, comparing their ideas of human nature to those of contemporary religious and philosophical schools.  Dousa compares the scenario in the B tablets with the parallels in Egyptian funerary materials, noting not just the similar images but also noting the important differences.  Since more tablets have been (and indeed continue to be) found in Crete than anywhere else in the Greek world, Tzifopoulis looks at the tablets within the context of specifically Cretan religion.

                  Semiotic analysis has proved a fruitful method in openings up the mysterious tablet texts, and several of the essays make use of the insights derived from careful attention to the semiotic situation of the tablet texts.  Calame's essay, here translated from the original French, was the first to examine the texts in this way, and he draws a number of useful conclusions about the nature of the tablets and the religious context in which they were produced.  In a revised and translated version of his contribution to the festschrift for Walter Burkert, Riedweg makes use of semiotic analysis to reconstruct an original text in which all the verses from the various tablets came and to locate the various verses in ritual contexts, be they funerary or initiatory.  Edmonds, on the other hand, shows that many of the same semiotic patterns could be produced in a different genre of text.  Rather than a didactic poem, excerpted and used for ritual purposes, Edmonds proposes that some of the tablet texts show the characteristics of verse oracles such as the itinerant religious specialists mocked in Plato and Aristophanes used.  These essays all show how much can be gleaned from a semiotic analysis of the texts, as well as the crucial importance in reconstructing the religious context of the model used for the religious phenomenon of Orphism. 

                  Obbink raises the question of why these texts might have been formulated in poetic language and examines the ways in which the poetic verses in the tablets are shaped by the conventions and patterns of the larger Greek verse tradition.  Obbink emphasizes the performative aspect of the poetic language and uses his analysis to explore the link between the verses and their possible ritual contexts.  Faraone also examines the ritual context of the tablets, but he focuses on the non-hexametrical sections that appear in some of the tablets, rather than the hexameters that make up the bulk of the verses.  His analysis links the mysterious declarations in these sections to myths connected to the cyclical return of Dionysos.  Herrero compares the soul's dialogue with the powers of the underworld to the scenes in the Homeric epics in which a hero puts forth his own lineage.  The similarities between these scenes of self-definition through genealogy are striking, but the differences between the heroes' boasts and the supplications of the tablets are illuminating for an understanding of the religious ideas behind the tablets. Graf's essay brings the volume to a conclusion by placing the tablets within the context of other writings attributed to Orpheus that pertain to eschatology.  The tablets' use as grave goods clearly marks their importance for understanding ideas of life, death, and afterlife, and their particular significance can only be understood in relation to other ancient evidence of this kind.

Proposed Contents:


Edmonds, Radcliffe -  Who Are You? A Brief History of the Scholarship (unpublished)


Texts and Contexts

Texts and translations of the gold tablets, based on BernabŽ and JimŽnez


Graf, Fritz, "Text and Ritual: The Corpus Eschatologicum of the Orphics," in La Letteratura Pseudigrafa nella Cultura Greca e Romana, Attti di un In contro di studi Napoli, 15-17 gennaio 1998, ed. Giovanni Cerri, Napoli, 2000, pp. 59-77.

BernabŽ, Alberto and Ana JimŽnez San Cristobal, "Are the Orphic Gold leaves Orphic?" (unpublished)

Betz, Hans Dieter, "'Der Erde Kind bin ich und des gestirnten Himmels': Zur Lehre vom Menschen in den orphischen GoldplŠttchen," from Ansichten griechischer Rituale:  Geburtstags-Symposium fŸr Walter Burkert, ed. Graf, 1998, pp. 399-419. (translated)

Dousa, Tom, "Common Motifs in the 'Orphic' B Tablets and Egyptian Funerary Texts: Continuity or Convergence?" (unpublished)

Tzifopoulis, Yannis, "Centre and/or Periphery: a Cretan(?) Connection" (unpublished)


Semiotic and Narrative Analyses

Calame, Claude, "Invocations et commentaires 'orphiques':  transpositions funŽraires de discours religieux," from Discours religieux dans l'AntiquitŽ, ed. Marie-Madeleine Mactoux & Evelyne Geny, Annales LittŽraires de l'UniversitŽ de Besanon, # 578, Les Belles Lettres: Paris, 1995, pp. 11-30. (translated)

Riedweg, Christoph, "Initiation - Tod - Unterwelt:  Beobachtungen zur Kommunikationssituation und narrativen Technik der orphisch-bakchischen GoldblŠttchen," from Ansichten griechischer Rituale:  Geburtstags-Symposium fŸr Walter Burkert, ed. Fritz Graf, B.G. Teubner:  Stuttgart und Leipzig, 1998, pp. 359-398. (revised and translated)

Edmonds, Radcliffe, "Sacred Scripture or Oracles for the Dead:  The Semiotic Situation of the 'Orphic' Gold Tablets" (unpublished)

Faraone, Chris, "Rushing Into Milk:  New Perspectives on the Gold Tablets" (unpublished)

Herrero de J‡uregui, Miguel, "Dialogues of Immortality from the Iliad to the golden leaves" (unpublished)

Obbink, Dirk, "Poetry and Performance in the Orphic Gold Leaves" (unpublished)




Bibliography of Scholarship on the Tablets