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Ancient Greek Derveni Papyrus: Europe’s Oldest Surviving Book

derveni papyrus
A segment of the ancient Greek Derveni Papyrus. Credit: Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki

The Derveni papyrus, an ancient Greek papyrus roll from the era of Philip II of Macedon’s reign—probably from the years between 340 and 320 B.C.—is considered Europe’s oldest legible manuscript still in existence today.

Its name derives from the site where it was discovered some six miles north of Thessaloniki, where is is currently being preserved in the Archaeological Museum.

The papyrus was discovered in 1962 among the remnants of a funeral pyre in one of the tombs in the area, which has also yielded extremely rich artifacts, primarily items of metalware.

After the exacting job of unrolling and separating the layers of the charred papyrus roll and then piecing the numerous fragments together again, twenty-six columns of text were recovered, all with their bottom parts missing, as they had perished on the pyre.

Derveni Papyrus is a philosophical treatise

The papyrus is a philosophical treatise and an allegorical commentary on an older Orphic poem concerning the birth of the gods.

Followers of Orphism were associated with the mythical poet Orpheus and revered the gods Persephone and Dionysus who both went down to the Underworld and managed to return.

The author of the piece is a contested issue among scholars, who have proposed that Euthyphron of Prospalta, Diagoras of Melos, or Stesimbrotus of Thasos may be one of the authors.

Derveni Papyrus
The Derveni papyrus fragments as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. Credit: Gts-tg , CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikipedia

The papyrus was the first Greek item to be included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World program.

The Memory of the World program aims at protecting against decay and oblivion of the world’s documentary heritage by highlighting the value of previous works while also facilitating access to them.

Papyrus: the first book of the western tradition

“The Derveni Papyrus is of immense importance not only for the study of Greek religion and philosophy, which is the basis for western philosophical thought but also because it serves as proof of the early dating of the Orphic poems offering a distinctive version of pre-Socratic philosophers,” UNESCO says about the papyrus.
According to UNESCO, the Derveni Papyrus, the first book of western tradition is globally influential and reflective of universal human values, which include but are not limited to the need for an explanation of the universe and life in general, the desire for belonging to a community, and coming to terms with death.

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