Derveni papyrus

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Some fragments of the Derveni papyrus
The Derveni papyrus - Archaeological museum of Thessaloniki

The Derveni papyrus is an ancient Greek papyrus roll that was found in 1962. It is a philosophical treatise that is an allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem, a theogony concerning the birth of the gods, produced in the circle of the philosopher Anaxagoras, it was composed near the end of the 5th century BC,[1] making it "in the fields of Greek religion, the sophistic movement, early philosophy, and the origins of literary criticism it is unquestionably the most important textual discovery of the 20th century."[2] The roll itself dates to around 340 BC, during the reign of Philip II of Macedon, making it Europe's oldest surviving manuscript.[3][4] While interim editions and translations were published over the subsequent years, the manuscript as a whole was finally published in 2006.


The roll was found on 15 January 1962 at a site in Derveni, Macedonia, northern Greece, on the road from Thessaloniki to Kavala. The site is a nobleman's grave in a necropolis that was part of a rich cemetery belonging to the ancient city of Lete.[5] It is the oldest surviving manuscript in the Western tradition and one of the very few surviving papyri, probably the oldest literary papyrus found in Greece.[1][3] Archaeologists recovered the top parts of the charred papyrus scroll from ashes atop the slabs of the tomb, since the bottom parts had burned from the funeral pyre, joined all the fragments together, thus forming 26 columns of text.[1] It survived in the humid Greek soil, which is unfavorable to the conservation of papyri, because it was carbonized (hence dried) in the nobleman’s funeral pyre. [6] The papyrus is kept in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.


The text is a commentary on a hexameter poem ascribed to Orpheus. Fragments of the poem are quoted. The poem begins with the words "Close the doors, you uninitiated", a famous admonition to secrecy, recounted by Plato. The theogony described in the poem has Nyx (Night) give birth to Heaven (Uranus), who becomes the first king. Cronus follows and takes the kingship from Uranus, but he is likewise succeeded by Zeus.

Zeus, having "heard oracles from his father", goes to the sanctuary of Night, who tells him "all the oracles which afterwards he was to put into effect." Upon hearing them, Zeus "swallowed the phallus [of the king Uranus] who first had ejaculated the brilliance of heaven."[7]

Recent reading[edit]

The text was not officially published for forty-four years after its discovery (though three partial editions were published). A team of experts was assembled in autumn 2005 led by A. L. Pierris of the Institute for Philosophical studies and Dirk Obbink, director of the Oxyrhynchus papyrus project at the University of Oxford, with the help of modern multispectral imaging techniques by Roger Macfarlane and Gene Ware of Brigham Young University to attempt a better approach to the edition of a difficult text. Meanwhile, the papyrus has been published by scholars from Thessaloniki (Tsantsanoglou et al., below), which provides a complete text of the papyrus based on autopsy of the fragments, with photographs and translation. More work clearly remains to be done (see Janko 2006, below).

Style of writing[edit]

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 e.g. cμικρό-, μικρό; ὄντα, ἐόντα; νιν for μιν etc.[8]

The oldest 'book' of Europe - UNESCO Memory of The World Register[edit]

The Derveni papyrus fragments as displayed in the archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, along with the UNESCO dedication in the middle of the panel.

On December 12, 2015, the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki held the official event to celebrate the registration of the Derveni Papyrus in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

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 the western philosophical thought, but also because it serves as a proof of the early dating of the Orphic poems offering a distinctive version of Presocratic philosophers. 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."[9]


  1. ^ a b c "The Derveni Papyrus: An Interdisciplinary Research Project". Harvard University, Center for Hellenic Studies. 
  2. ^ Richard Janko, "The Derveni Papyrus: An Interim Text", Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 141 (2002), p. 1
  3. ^ a b "Ancient scroll may yield religious secrets". The Associated Press. Retrieved 1 June 2006. 
  4. ^ "THE PAPYRUS OF DERVENI". Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Archived from the original on 28 April 2006. Retrieved 1 June 2006. 
  5. ^ Betegh, Gábor (19 November 2007). The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation. Cambridge University Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-521-04739-5. Retrieved 14 January 2012. 
  6. ^ Betegh, Gábor (2004). The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 59. ISBN 9780521801089. 
  7. ^ Bowersock, G. W. Tangled Roots. From The New Republic Online 8 June 2005. Retrieved 6 June 2006.
  8. ^ For a full list, see Janko (1997) 62–3
  9. ^ "The Derveni Papyrus: The oldest 'book' of Europe | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization". Retrieved 2015-12-14. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]