The Gold Leaves (being an account and translation from the Ancient Greek of the so-called ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets), by Edward Jenner (Atuanui Press, 2014), 162 pp., $35
Jenner begins by situating himself among the group that sees these gold leaves as signs of ‘experimental speculations’ (a term used by the late Walter Burkert), concerning the separate and enduring life of the soul. An epigraph from Plato’s Phaedo 62b sets the mood for Jenner’s inquiry:
The account found in secret doctrines that we
men live in a sort of prison from which there
is no escape, seems to me both profound and
difficult to fathom.
Jenner’s mood is calm, his language precise, his research cautious. He is intent on ‘[bringing] the Leaves to the attention of the reader who has no background in Classics or Ancient Greek’ but who ‘shares an interest in pre-Christian ideas about the soul, the Underworld, and the afterlife’. He promises to ‘attempt a coherent and consistent interpretation of their meaning and purpose’. He acknowledges that only a few leaves have been uncovered, and that the variety of theories about them rivals the diversity and versions of Greek myths themselves. A lamella would have been laid flat upon the lips of the defunct or upon his or her right hand or chest; it was sometimes folded or rolled up and, when rolled (if Margherita Guarducci is correct) it may have been placed inside the mouth of the dead person. An example of a lamella, faithful in dimensions, is reproduced on the cover in stunning gold against a shiny black cover. The book is well-executed, hand-bound and machine printed on quality paper.
Jenner asserts early that the dead (carriers of the gold leaves) had undergone initiation rituals during their lives, which would furnish them with the knowledge necessary to pass tests after death, guaranteeing them a ‘blissful existence if not deification’; the lamellae acted as passwords, passports or memory cards connected to initiation. Since the purported cult they shared had no name, his method is to identify ‘salient features of an eschatology’ inferred from the texts of the leaves, and to identify mystery cults of the time to which these features might relate. At times he notifies us of staging posts or points of bifurcation we have reached in the inquiry, so that he is himself something of a psychopomp guiding us along, and after many elucidating turns left and right the essay concludes with a fascinating reconstruction of a Bacchic-Orphic initiation such as the deceased may have undergone in life.
Translations of the 125 lines of surviving lamellae follow. Publisher endorsements cite two Auckland academics: Murray Edmond, ‘a book about poetry, about its potential and its limits, about its “charm”’; and Wystan Curnow, ‘these scraps … humble if they don’t humiliate, poetry as we know it’. More recently (June 2015), Hellenist Miguel Herrero de Jauregui has noted in the Bryn Maur Classical Review that the ‘tone of the translations is purposefully neutral and avoids grand effects’, and that Jenner accurately approximates the ‘aesthetic effects that these poetic lines might have generated in an ancient audience’. Jenner himself reminds us that the texts are not literature so much as liturgical fragments, inseparable from the eschatology he has outlined. So, from both literary and research points of view, all the original Greek texts would have been useful. This edition offers us only two of the 16 texts in Greek. One of these faces its translation, while the other appears unexpectedly on a right-hand facing page, with the translation overleaf. Given the lack of complete Greek texts, a note here and there about Jenner’s reasons for his word-choices might have been helpful. For example, in a future edition he might explain in simple terms why he preferred the destination-active ‘[I am the kid that] rushed to milk’ over the more commonly-found (and perchance culinary) ‘fallen to milk’ for the ‘Orphic’ symbolon ‘Εριphοσεσγαλ’επετον’ [add smooth breathing diacritical marks over the epsilons of Eriphos, es and epeton, and pitch-raising acute accents over the epsilons of Eriphos and epeton, and over the alpha of gal’ if they do not appear in this online format). The original Greek of the Pelinna (A) text would have been interesting, since Jenner’s translation contains both ‘leapt into milk’ and ‘rushed to milk’ in consecutive lines; we’d have been able to see the difference, and understand less partially Jenner’s choices. Finally, the translations might have been presented according to the three categories mentioned in the essay, or signposted with page numbers in the main text. Their presentation here, coming in a single block at the end of the long essay, does not make it easy to go directly to pertinent texts. Inconsistently, Jenner’s essay is called an ‘account’ on the cover, indicated as ‘Introduction’ on the Contents page, and titled ‘The Gold Leaves’ in the body of the work, the essay. So let us return to it.
Referring constantly to the ‘appended’ texts, Jenner looks severally at issues to do with gender, controversial images, and the predominance of Persephone (daughter of Demeter, the harvest goddess). He situates the lamellae in their historicity of belief and law. Consequently, I’d have liked to know even more about socio-political aspects. He writes: ‘It is now becoming obvious [Orphic and Pythagorean doctrines] stem from communities which rejected the conventional polis (Greek city-state).’ Considering that the west of the Greek-speaking world (where many of the Gold Leaves come from) was the first to codify the laws on stone, bronze, wood and on walls, ‘wresting legal dominance from the aristocracies’ (Fine, The Ancient Greeks), and since persons discovered with the leaves folded in or on their mouths or hands were conceivably aristocratic, I found myself wondering whether they were seeking a kind of privilege denied them by the written laws? Or were they simply seeking to be part of a post-mortem elite, quite apart from any threat to their power? In either case, intimations of elitism complicate (in an interesting, and paradoxical way) Jenner’s hidden argument for the importance of their belief in the history of western religion and human self-appraisal. It is certain that not just anyone could organise their funeral with such precision. To call them members of an elite or of a self-appointed ‘elect’ is not at all to undermine the chief advantage for adherents, common or aristocratic, if the tenets of their mystery were true. Belief in humanity’s rights of access to the divine carried with it a heightened appreciation of any individual’s worth and potential. The basis of the Leaves’ putative subsuming myth, that of Dionysus Zagreus (described below), encompassed all of humanity.
Little by little we come to understand the importance of Plato, who found an unlikely belief partner in ‘Orphic’-Pythagorean views of the afterlife. Jenner cites him again and again, calling on Phaedrus, Cratylus, Republic, Timaeus, Phaedo 69c twice, Meno and Phaedo 62b. Much of the argument turns around the Zagreus myth, criticised by R.G. Edmonds, among others, as anachronistic. But Jenner is not ‘bothered’ (his term) by the lack of ‘hard evidence’ for the myth before the 5th c. A.D. As we’ll see, there are good reasons for its absence from surviving B.C.E. documents. So what is this Zagrean myth all about?
The Titans cut Dionysus Zagreus into seven pieces, cook him, eat him and partly digest him, whereat Zeus, his father, exterminates the Titans with a lightning bolt. Mankind is born from their smoking soot, and thereby comes to possess aspects of the Titans and aspects of Dionysus, aspects both ‘evil’ and divine. Incidentally, Pallas Athena made off with the heart of Dionysus Zagreus, enabling Dionysus to be reborn from this later. So the myth is not inalienable from ‘Orphic’-Pythagorean belief in an afterlife, and it would have assisted initiands’ belief in their right of entry to the divine; furthermore, to be born from the Titans’ soot is to be born with their fault for murder and cannibalism; it is to carry a highly blameworthy, not to say ‘original’, sin. Remember also that the Titan Kronos swallowed all his children whole and uncooked, (except for Zeus, since his mother tricked Kronos into swallowing a stone instead), allowing for their ‘happy’ regurgitation.
As a New Zealander, Jenner shares with his compatriots (including me) a recent homophagic autochthonous history, making such a myth less untenable, perhaps. Cannibalism in Greek stories occurs in all its forms. Tricking a father into eating his own child begins the story of the House of Atreus and is at the source of half of extant Greek tragedies (5th c. B.C.E.). Unconscious cannibalism is the revenge tale of the daughters of King Pandion of Athens against Tereus of Thrace, carrying back, interestingly enough, the trick of unconscious cannibalism to the purported homeland of Orphism (Ovid, or Sophocles’ lost tragedy Tereus). One may see in the sacrifice of Iphigenia to Artemis, after Menelaus’ desecration of her grove (by hunting her goats and deer to feed his hungry soldiers) at Aulis (Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis), the sacrifice of a young woman in the way one would sacrifice an edible animal, and Euripides twice comes very close indeed to insinuating omophagia (the eating of raw – in this case human – flesh) into The Bacchae, but never actually intructs it to occur.
Some researchers, particularly R. Edmonds (‘Tearing apart the Zagreaus myth’, Classical Quarterly 18, 1999) have warned against interpreting the myth from a Christian viewpoint, and they have pointed to its absence from pre-Christian documents. But there are reasons for the lack of ‘hard evidence’ for the Zagreus myth before the 5th century, and for deducing its spread a thousand or more years earlier: its ‘unspeakable’ content (which includes the ‘blasphemous’ anomaly of a god dying); secrecy surrounding the Greek cults (Plato’s ‘secret tale’ of the epigraph); the initiands’ elitist (i.e. exclusive, probably aristocratic) aspect; Plutarch’s reference to the story of the Titan and Dionysus in ‘On the Eating of Flesh’, in Moralia (1st c); the dating of (Zagrean) Eudemian Theogony (contained in the Orphic Rhapsodies of 100 B.C.) to the fifth century B.C.; attribution of the legend by Pausanias (2nd c. A.D.) to 5th c. B.C. Onomacritus (notwithstanding an argument which aims to discredit Onomacritus and doubt the authorship of all his texts); and an apparent reference to the story in a threnody by the purportedly aristocratic 5th c. B.C. Pindar. Finally, though I don’t pretend the list of evidence is complete, M.L. West notes that ‘the longest and most influential of all Orphic poems … known to us only in fragments … was only one of three Orphic theogonies distinguished and cited by a late Neoplatonic writer [whereas] in fact no less than six can be identified.’
Orphic-Bacchic-Pythagorean beliefs were disseminated by travelling oral-delivery operators, whose texts (for they’d have carried books with them) have not survived. Charlatans or gifted seers, Orpheotelestai were free to choose from a wealth of myths and spells, and may have presided over rites of this unnamed, widespread, ill-defined cult. Jenner does not discuss counterfeiting or uninitiated possession, but he does speak of sincere initiated subjects submitting to the rites of travelling Orpheotelestai in good faith. While its practice may have been far from regulated, and its celebrants far from respectable, this does nothing to discredit the implications of phrases found on the leaves, such as, ‘I too claim to be of your blessed race’ (the leaf Thurii 2A). Jenner joins some scholars who posit this ‘Orphic’ element as an antecedent, if not a precursor, for the doctrine of remission of sin, and for the metaphor of mnemosynic homophagy proposed by Christ at the Last Supper: humanity inherited the original sin of Adam; the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God, returned to humanity access to the divine.
Jenner provides two indexes for us, one general and another helpfully listing all classical references. He regrets our ignorance of when leaves were manufactured for the initiand. Did it occur as the person was dying, or when they were initiated? Or between the two decisive events? This would certainly have helped the ‘account’ considerably, since we would then have known whether the written texts partook of mythos (the practise, the performance, of words, incised and placed at the last moment with the defunct) or of logos (words’ written representation, viewable, readable, and able to be criticised or evaluated during the lifetime of the initiand). This is a good moment to say that I found Jenner’s chapter on Ritual Performance thought-provoking: it had me wondering about the leftness and rightness – could the handedness of the initiate have played a part in some of the reversals of laterality found in the leaves? Might the altar, or the staginess, have interfered with laterality, or have been somehow related to the actual stages of 5th c. B.C.E. Greek tragedy (remembering that ‘tragedy’ means goat-song, perhaps referring to goats once sacrificed to Dionysus before performances and that an altar to Dionysus was usually situated in the centre of the ‘orchestra’)? Such questions on my part were possibly encouraged by Jenner’s approach, which does not take the limitations of archaeological findings for the limitations of reality. Some of the adherents of this vaguely defined ‘Orphic’ phenomenon may have believed that mankind was born from the soot of the Titans, and even from the soot of a partly-digested Dionysus, endowing us all with Titanic guilt and the DNA of Zeus’s own son, whose adult romps and ambiguous sexuality (after his second birth) would appeal in modern times to writers as various as Nietzsche and Paglia.
All of which shows how stimulating the book has been to one who certainly comes within its limited range of intended readers. Jenner’s book is something like a five-day cricket test. You need to have a certain knowledge base (in pre-Christian and Greek matters) to appreciate it, and there is in this case no reportable result. If anything, you might experience a slight sense of anti-climax. As for his English translations denuded of their Ancient Greek originals, it is well that he reminds us not to read them as literature, or not only as literature (p. 98). While he imbues them with his own poetic sense, justly praised by poets and scholars, it’s best to remember that the fragments derive from ritual recitations memorised or carried around in books of the time by Orpheotelestai (priests or charlatan peddlars); that these were developed after the Greeks’ rationalisation of a shamanistic (in-origin) Orpheus (or his tendency, since Orpheus may never have existed); and it cannot be denied that they exhibit rhizomic threads that touch Pythagorean, Dionysiac and the popular, non-exclusive Eleusinian mysteries.
Taking Jenner’s lead here, he might then have appended details about Pythagorean metempsychosis or the Eleusinian mysteries. While the Eleusinian mysteries (presided over by a hierophant, ‘literally a showman of holy things’ as W.K.C. Guthrie put it) were principally agricultural, seeking a favourable outcome from the earth, they climaxed in a personal, secret ‘Beholding’ (epopteia) and initiands would never have lost sight of the notion of earth as depository of souls. The Eleusinian mysteries, and Pythagorean metempsychosis which many writers find inseparable from early ‘Orphism’, would have offered hope of a better afterlife than that of ‘a mere shadow comparable to a dream or smoke [which] squeals like a bat’, as Jenner describes the concept of the soul in early Greek literature.
And so Gold Leaves is dealing with weighty matter indeed. If we accept the Zagreus myth, the leaves provide significant evidence in the history of Greco-Roman belief of a palpable transition from the Orphic-Bacchic-Pythagorean (and Demeter-corn-based Eleusinian) to the sin-remitting Christian. This would add sauce to some aspects of religious history, such as that in the first century after Christ’s crucifixion ‘the sacrament of the Last Supper was ignorantly construed as cannibalism’ (E.T. Salmon). Jenner does not get embroiled in a debate about applicability to Christian belief, but his epigraph, his cautious argumentation and his parting words suggest where his sympathies lie. His initiand asserts ‘baldly without parallel clauses … and all the more effective for that’: I am the kid that rushed to milk, ‘(meaning […] ‘A god am I and mortal no longer’)’. While Edmonds has pointed to a kind of resurrection of the Puritan view of afterlife of the elect in some attempted constructions of an Orphic ‘religion’ since the 19th century, Jenner prefers not to leave us with the image of merited election, but with that of purifying human/divine/animal sacrifice. The words are from the Agnus Dei of Christian liturgy, found in Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Orthodox (Western Rite) Churches: ‘the ceremonies of the Lamb that takest away the sins of the world’.
While it is possible to read his translations as poems in themselves, it is certainly better to familiarise oneself with the essay, or with the growing body of scholarship, some of it appearing at the time of writing. For these golden lamellae are becoming a hot topic. Whether Zagrean belief grew into Dionysus-castrating Christian belief, or whether it is a coincidence, simply antedating it, these ‘speculations’ (Burkert) or ‘doctrines’ (Plato) may have contributed (paradoxically, if their practice was exclusive) to a heightened appreciation of the value of the ‘live’ individual, or steered adherents to visualisation of a dignified life surpassing death. An aggregation of Pythagorean metempsychosis and other mysteries (tending towards a new concept of the living endowed with undying soul), merging with the Zagrean homophagic myth (replete with guilt and rights of entry to the divine), albeit implicated in a likely form of travelling quackery making use of evocative ‘Orphic’ texts, might be of great importance for us in understanding our intellectual and spiritual anthropogony. Although we cannot be sure of the connection, Jenner’s study with its sensitive translations of liturgical fragments reminds us of (Greco-Christian) religion’s role in our brief history, in dignifying and valuing the tender, complex and not-always innocent self.
William Direen is a writer and music collaborator. He has published a number of novels in New Zealand, and since 2006 has edited the hard-copy literary annual Percutio. He lives in Dunedin.