Derveni papyrus – The oldest readable book of Europe


The papyrus of Derveni has been added to the world heritage list of Unesco “Memory of the world”. The oldest readable book of Europe.

The papyrus of Derveni is the first papyrus ever to be found in Greek territory and the oldest readable papyrus of Europe. It was discovered in 1962 inside a burned grave in Derveni (Derveni, Macedonia in northern Greece), on the settlement of ancient city Lete. The grave was built in 330 BCE and was the last home of a great warrior who had accompanied Alexander the Great at his expeditions. The tradition was to burn the dead along with the grave goods and among other things, the papyrus was found. Considering the technical means of the time the tomb was discovered, preserving it was an extremely difficult task. But fortunately, A. Fackelmann, a very experienced conservator of antiquities, was set in charge and not only did he manage to preserve it, but he also succeeded in unfolding it. Luckily for us, the papyrus was dried by the fire and got sheltered from the humidity of the soil.

Greek professors, who studied the “book”, concluded that it is a 3rd c. BCE copy of the original text that dates back to the time of Socrates. The writer comments on an Orphic myth about the origin of the world, but his interpretation is unconventional. He claims that the gods are not really gods, but they symbolize the elements of nature. And not only gods, but also places and events are allegoric depictions and should undergo the correct interpretation to show their value. His argument is that “…Orpheus did not want to tell charming riddles, but to tell momentous things through riddles…” (column 7). For example, he says that mount Olympus in the myth is not the real mountain, but an allegory in time. Air symbolizes the mind and is to be identified with god. This god is the Mind of everything and everyone, the only true divinity. All other “thought to be” gods are just another way to make the other forms of the Mind intelligible. Reflecting the views of Pherecydes, Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Democritus, the writer explains that this Mind, named Zeus by the humans, did not make the world out of nothing. The world consists of tiny particles which existed always. They were in a state of chaos until the Mind formed animate and inanimate material bodies. He also tells us that Eumenides and Erinyes the deities assigned to bring good luck to the deceased, are not deities, but just the souls of the dead.

This interpretation was already known in the 6th c. BCE when philosopher Theagenes from Rhegium connected the Olympian gods to natural philosophy. He said that Poseidon is water, Hera is air, Apollo is fire etc. At the end of the 5th c. BCE, this approach had gained ground among the Orphics, and two centuries later it still had followers. One of them was the dead warrior of Derveni.

In his “book”, the celebrant presents his approach of what the “right” rituals are for the initiate to make sure he will have a good life in the Other World. This, he claims, is the only truth. It’s almost certain that he was one of the wandering “Orpheotelestai” Plato wrote about: “… and they produce a bushel of books of Musaeus and Orpheus, the offspring of the Moon and of the Muses, as they affirm, and these books they use in their ritual, and make not only ordinary men but states believe that there really are remissions of sins and purifications for deeds of injustice, by means of sacrifice and pleasant sport for the living and that there are also special rites for the defunct, which they call functions, that deliver us from evils in that other world, while terrible things await those who have neglected to sacrifice” (translation by Paul Shorey).

The unknown writer might indeed be an impostor as Plato believes. But who can assure us that he was not a gifted man who understood in depth what others failed to see? Maybe, another discovery in the future will shed more light upon the dark world of the Orphic Mysteries. And until then, we can let our imagination fly and we can be happy that the oldest readable “book” of Europe, is in good hands.

The papyrus belongs to the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.

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