The Derveni Papyrus

In the ancient greeks on 15/07/2011 at 11:51 pm

The Derveni papyrus, found in 1962 among the remains of a funeral pyre at Derveni near Thessaloniki, may be perhaps Europe’s oldest surviving Greek manuscript, written some time in the fourth century B.C.E. The manner in which the author of the Deverni papyrus opposed competing Greek religions and mystery-cults on the one hand provides a glimpse into the understanding of magic during ancient Greece: the text offers a novel defense of a particular mystery-cult by simultaneously elucidating a cosmogony and theology eerily close to the cosmogony of several influential Presocratic sophist philosophers.

While Kouremenos notes that “attempting to identify the Derveni author in light of the available evidence seems to be an exercise of rather low epistemic value” (1), it is valuable in-itself to examine the attitudes of the author, the cosmological theories the author advances, and how the theories and attitudes relate to Presocratic sophists of the era. Thus, the Deverni papyrus may indicate that the sophists might have been heavily influenced by ancient Greek religion and magic. In departing in the conventional interpretation of the gods, the sophists may have instead offered a reinterpretation or re-imagination of Greek religion and mystery-cults, claiming to have discovered a deeper or hidden secret by means of allegory, rather than engaging in a full-scale rejection of the traditional Greek understanding of magic and religion.

The Deverni papyrus is placed in the context of a culture defined by its relationship to magic that

  1. produces some desired action, and
  2. the initiation to hidden mysteries.

Religion was common in the Ancient Greek world: Sophocles, for instance, applies the term ‘magoi‘ to Teiresias, who can save the city from a plague (2), indicating that by coercing or supplicating to specific deities, or with special or revealed knowledge, initiates could manipulate the physical world. Witches would often draw down the moon with special rituals (goetia, pharmakia), and were seen as illicit use of power for the cultural outsider. Yet, magic was often used by ‘normal’ ancient Greeks to ‘game the system’ in competitive spheres of Greek life in their favor: love charms and curse tablets, too, granted power to the individual over others.

The second aspect of magoi is of interest in the Deverni papyrus: The author says he frequently consults oracles, and contrasts himself with rival magical practitioners, not by saying that the act of consulting oracles or offering sacrifices are mistaken, but that his rivals perform these acts in an inferior way. “The Derveni author refers to magoi as experts in certain rituals, but doubtless goes on to explain why his own expertise goes a step beyond even those extra-ordinary figures.”(3) As the author of the Derveni papyrus says,

“ … of those persons (who) saw (the Mysteries) while performing holy rites in the cities. I am less amazed if they do not understand them — one cannot hear what is said and understand it at the same time … these people deserve amazement and pity: amazement, because, although they expect … they will know, they perform the rite and depart without knowing, and do not ask questions …” (col. xx 1-12).

The author then provides an alternative cosmogony, not as derived from an entirely methodologically distinct way (a proto-scientific manner), but as a cosmogony derived from superior acts or superior knowledge. (4) “Orphics, religious experts, and sophists were overlapping categories at this date … What is most remarkable about him [the author] is the extraordinary mixture of piety and science.” (5) The author of the Deverni papyrus, then, claims to have access to true revealed knowledge.

The stories of Orpheus (col. vii) and Heraclitus (col. iv) are, according to the author, not literal stories, but allegorical codes about the secrets of nature. The Orphic allegory’s real meaning is intended for those “pure in hearing” (col. vii), since in columns ix and xiii the author claims that Orpheus does not speak “unbelievable riddles, but truths in riddles” and in column xxv claims that Orpheus composed verses “as an obstacle, since he did not want everyone to understand.”

The Deverni text is then written by a self-professed expert in rituals performed by the magoi, and are of a religious nature. Yet, they are strikingly similar to the physical and cosmological theories of the sophist Presocratics. The Derveni papyrus even cites the sophist Heraclitus of Ephesus at least once at column iv 8-10, and shows Heraclitus’ influence at several points. (6) This includes

“the distinction between (mere) learning and knowledge …; that intelligence should be called Zeus … and the author’s Heraclitean tone in distinguishing himself from the ignorant herd … Heraclitus’ equation of Hades and Dionysus … is similar to the equations of deities with each other in the papyrus, and justified by the same sort of word-play” (7)

Similarly, the philosopher Heraclitus insults traditional mystery religions as ignorant of real or deeper truths, (8) yet the style and content of Heraclitus’ work are both similar to the mystery cults he insults (9). The Derveni text matches the attitude of the ‘atheist’ Diagoras, who was, in light of the Derveni text, not an atheist in the modern sense. Like Xenophanes, the author adopts a monotheistic viewpoint (10), since he refers to the gods in the plural when discussing the beliefs of others, but refers only to god in the singular when discussing philosophy. Furthermore, As Laks and Most note, the terminology used by the author coincides with the language used by the Atomists (11) and the doctrines of Diogenes of Appelonia (12).

W. Burkert was the first scholar to argue that the cosmology and physics found in the Derveni text was related to, or dependent, on the work of Diogenes of Apollonia, and used expressions that were mirrored in the early atomists. (Burkert, however, changed his mind, arguing that the author was a later Pythagorean (13), but this distinction is of no importance.) Janko agrees with Burkert, and places the physical doctrines as those of Diogenes of Apollonia: Diogenes thought the world was pervaded by air, which cannot eliminated, only combined and separated. So too does the Deverni papyrus espouse the same dogmas:

“The things which exist have always existed, and those which now exist arise from those that are existent.” (col. xvi-7-8).

“(Air) existed before it was named, and then it was named. For Air existed even before those things which now exist were put together, and it always will exist. For it did not come to be, but existed.” (col. xvii 1-3).

Diogenes thought that air was identical with Zeus, depicted as an all-encompassing, pantheistic mind. The Deverni papyrus agrees:

“(Since) each single thing is named after its dominant (element), all things were called ‘Zeus’ by the same reasoning; for Air dominates all things so far as it wishes.” (col. xix 1-4); “‘Ocean’ is the Air, and Air is Zeus” (col. xxii 3). “…by saying that he makes it clear that Mind itself is equal in value to all things, as if the rest were nothing. For it would not be possible for these things to exist without Mind…” *col. xvi 8-12).

Again and again, the very same doctrines are found in the papyrus.

What can then be said of the Derveni text? It is fragmented in places, and often vague in its translation and initial language; however, its known content closely mirrors the Presocratic sophist philosophers in tone and in content. The author of the Deverni text then has some religious/philosophical relationship with some Presocratic philosophers, or may have himself been a student of one philosopher. As of this time, no hard and fast demarcation is currently known to separate the Presocratic philosophers from practitioners of magic (14). Early philosophers could very well present their work as a revelation of the secrets of nature. This blurs the boundaries between philosophy, religion, and magic (15), and at the time of the writing of the Deverni papyrus, only the most radical thinkers treated them as wholly separate entities.

In light of the Derveni papyrus, philosophy was then, as I so conjecture, born into a religious world, followed by people with religious mindsets. It began as dogmatic and revelatory as other religions, but –as Karl Popper conjectured in his World of Parmenides–much later on began to manifest a different attitude towards dogma and revelation.



1. Kouremenos, Th., G. Parássoglou, and K. Tsantsanoglou, The Deverni Papyrus (Florance, 2006), 59.

2. Sophocles, Oedepus the King, 300-15.

3. Edmonds, R. III. “Extra-Ordinary People: Mystai and Magoi, Magicians and Orphics in the Derveni Papyrus”, Classical Philology 103 (2008), 35

4. Gábor Betegh, 2004. The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation (Cambridge University Press).

5. Janko, R. ‘The Derveni Papyru (Diagoras of Melos, Apopyrgizontes Logoi?): A New Translation’, Classical Philology 96 (2001), 5.

6. Maria Serena Funghi in Laks and Most, Studies on the Derveni Papyrus (Oxford, 1997) p. 34; R. Seaford, ‘Immortality, Salvation and the Elements’, HSCP 90 (1986) pp. 1-26.

7. Janko, R. ‘The Physicist as Hierophant: Aristophanes, Socrates and the Authorship of the Derveni Payrus’, Zeitschrift für Payrologie und Epigraphik Bd. 118 (1997),  63.

8. Sider, “Heraclitus in the Derveni Papyrus,” 129-48.

9. Seaford, “Immortality”, 14-20.

10. K. Tsantsanoglou, The First Columns of the Derveni Papyrus and Their Significance. In Laks and Most 1997, 99.

11. Laks, A. and G.W. Most, Studies on the Derveni Papyrus (Oxford, 1997) p. 167

12. ibid., p. 4.

13. Burkert, “Orpheus und die Vorsokraiker,” A*A 14 (1968): 93-114, as quoted in Richard Janko, Derveni Papyrus, 3.

14. Donald McGibbon, “The Religious Thought of Democritus”, Hermes, Vol. 93, No. 4.

15. Collins, Derek, “Nature, Cause, and Agency in Greek Magic”, Transactions of the American Philological Association 133 (2003) 17-49.

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