The Derveni Papyrus found in northern Greece is of immense importance, registered by UNESCO in 2015 as the oldest handwritten “book” in Europe.
The precious finding that was included in the “International Memory of the World Register” in 2015 was discovered near Thessaloniki in 1962.
It is purely European, as it is distinctly different from any other papyrus found in Egypt or the Middle East. This makes it a monumental discovery for classical studies, ancient history, and religion.
According to UNESCO, “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 Presocratic philosophers.”
In 1962, archeologists discovered the Derveni Papyrus in Macedonia, Europe's oldest manuscript, which contained fragments of Orphic Hymns written in the 5th century BC. The content of the papyrus was a commentary on the archaic cult of Orpheus. pic.twitter.com/YimqvTTfy0
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“The text of the Papyrus, which is the first book of western tradition, has a global significance, since it reflects universal human values: the need to explain the world, the desire to belong to a human society with known rules and the agony to confront the end of life,” UNESCO explains.
The Derveni papyrus fragments are displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, along with the UNESCO dedication.
Discovery of the Derveni Papyrus
The Derveni Papyrus was discovered near Thessaloniki at the Macedonian Tomb of Lagadas, or the so-called “Tomb of Makridis Bey,” in 1962.
It is an artifact that doesn’t merely belong to the past but is more like a bridge that connects us to the intellectual world of ancient Greece. Dating back to around 340 to 320 BC, it is the oldest legible manuscript discovered in Europe, making it a treasure of unparalleled value.
The papyrus was detected among the remains of a funeral pyre in a richly adorned tomb from the late classical era. The pyre contained more than one hundred artifacts.
These included a bronze volute krater with cremated remains wrapped in a cloth and parts of two wreaths, one gold with oak leaves and the other with gilded clay berries and leaves. The tomb also contained a number of vases made of metal, clay, alabaster, and glass.
There were metal strigils, parts of a breastplate, fragments of ivory, objects, necklace beads, pigments, and a number of buttons and sheets from the decoration of the clothes of the deceased.
In the pyre debris, within a layer of burnt mud that had turned to clay stood out a strange roll with a height of only 9.4 centimeters.
After removing the clay, archaeologists were astonished by one of the rarest finds in Greece—an ancient Greek papyrus, preserved as a result of its partial carbonization by the funeral pyre.
Its survival is somewhat miraculous. It remained legible despite being partially charred, a state that perhaps paradoxically aided in its preservation.
Deciphering the Text
The significance of the Derveni Papyrus became obvious to famous archaeologist Petros Themelis who was head of the excavation. Archaeologist Charalambos Makaronas assisted him, while Austrian expert A. Fakelman played an important role in its preservation.
Fakelman unrolled the scroll and placed the papyrus fragments between glass panes. A pointed reed dipped in ink was used to write on it.
The Derveni Papyrus consists of nine panels, and 266 fragments have survived. These range in size from that of a large postage stamp to that of a lentil.
It was a great challenge to translate the text on the papyrus. Yet, in October 2006, Kyriakos Tsantsanoglou, a Greek professor of classical literature and a papyrologist, announced a successful complete translation.
The text is written by an unknown author who offers a philosophical treatise believed to be associated with the circle of philosopher and astronomer Anaxagoras.
The content is so significant it has been described as “the most important new evidence for ancient Greek philosophy and religion to appear since the Renaissance” and simultaneously as “the most difficult to understand.”
Insight Into Mystical Beliefs
The first seven columns of the papyrus deal with mystical beliefs and cults of the era as well as the practices of Persian magicians.
The author discusses the disbelief in afterlife sufferings and describes various rituals such as sacrifices and libations made to the Erinyes and Eumenides. Surprisingly, the author perceives these entities not as deities but as the countless souls of the dead.
The text continues with the interpretation of an enigmatic Orphic hymn. This theogony, unknown until the discovery of the Derveni Papyrus, provides a unique perspective on ancient Greek mythology and religious thought.
This section sheds light on the complex and often esoteric mythological narratives that were prevalent in ancient Greek culture. It also offers scholars rare insight into the evolution of these stories and their meanings.
The central focus of the text is an analysis of a hexameter poem dedicated to Orpheus, utilized in Dionysus’ mystery cult by Orphic initiators. The text includes excerpts from the poem, as interpreted by the unknown author.
The poem deals with the birth of the gods and begins with Nyx (Night) birthing Uranus (Sky), the first king, followed by Cronus and Zeus. Zeus ultimately reigns supreme, guided by oracles from Nyx.
A controversial aspect involves Zeus’ relations with Rhea and Demeter, leading to Persephone’s birth, though details are presumably in a missing second roll.
The poem also contains instructions on religious rites. The author posits that Orpheus’ tales are allegorical, conveying profound truths through riddles and targeting an audience “pure in hearing.”
The text deals with occult rituals such as sacrifices to Erinyes. It speaks of troublesome demons and the beliefs of the magi. These columns controversially include quotations from Heraclitus.