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. It is currently being preserved in the Archaeological Museum there.
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.
The text of the papyrus contains a mix of dialects. It is mainly a mixture of Attic and Ionic Greek; however, it contains a few Doric forms. Sometimes, the same word appears in different dialectal forms.
The papyrus was the first Greek item to be included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World program.