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December 7, 2015

The Derveni Papyrus: The Most Ancient Book in Europe

The Derveni Papyrus has recently been inscribed as one of the works for protection within the Memory of the World Register by UNESCO. Named as the ‘Most Ancient Book in Europe,’ the history of the text’s discovery and decoding is almost as interesting as the content contained within. When the papyrus was discovered by chance in Derveni (near Thessalonika), Greece in 1962 the document was badly charred. It was not until 2006 that the text was decoded and the allegorical commentary and ancient religious teachings it included came to light and caused more questions and controversy to arise.

The ceremony for the universal distinction of Derveni Papyrus will take place in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki on December 12!

The History of the Derveni Papyrus

The discovery of the Derveni Papyrus was unanticipated – as with many archaeological finds in modern times it came about through development. When the National Road was constructed between Thessalonika to Kavala in Greece, numerous tombs were unearthed. In tomb A’s funeral pyre, a charred papyrus roll was found amongst the rich grave goods (which included metal artifacts as well.) The carbonized document survived in the humid Greek soil, but was so delicate that it separated into more than 200 fragments.

The date of the Derveni Papyrus has ranged from 350 -320 BC. However, the text contained within may be from the 5th Century BC. The author of the document is unknown, with some scholars suggesting Euthyphron of Prospalta, Diagoras of Melos, and Stesimbrotus of Thasos as possible contenders. It took many years for the publishing of the Derveni Papyrus. In 1982 an anonymous writer published an unauthorized version of the papyrus in the back of a scholarly journal to speed things up. Following this more unofficial copies of the Derveni Papyrus began to emerge. Finally, in 2006 the content of the papyrus fully came to light – it is a treatise that contains both religious instructions and allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem.

The Story Within the Derveni Papyrus

Technology has enabled researchers to decipher four more columns of the Derveni Papyrus, now completing the text at 26 columns. Within these columns are philosophical writings focused on the gods, cosmos, religious practices, and the nature of the soul.

Harvard University’s Center for Hellenistic Studies has described the text as:

“the eschatological teaching of a mantis; the content is divided between religious instructions on sacrifices to gods and souls, and allegorical commentary on a theogonical poem ascribed to Orpheus. The author’s outlook is philosophical, displaying, in particular, a physical system close to those of Anaxagoras, the Atomists, and Diogenes of Apollonia. His allegorical method of interpretation is especially interesting, frequently reminiscent of Socrates’ playful mental and etymological acrobatics as seen in Plato’s Cratylus.”

Within the text is the direct mention of Orpheus, as seen in column 8:

“For it is not possible to state what way the words are used and at the same time the text itself His poetry is something strange and riddling for people. But Orpheus did not intend to tell them captious riddles, but momentous things in riddles. Indeed, he is telling a holy discourse from the first and up to his last word. As he also makes clear in the well-chosen verse: for having ordered them to put doors to their ears he says that he is [? not legislating] for the many… [? but only for] those pure in hearing…”

It has also been argued that the Derveni Papyrus describes a creation myth in which Night gives birth to Heaven/Uranus (“Ouranos son of Night, who first of all ruled” –column 15) and Cronus then Zeus succeed Heaven/Uranus as kings (“From him in turn Kronos, and then wise Zeus.” – column 16).Simplified, Janko believes that the author was saying that the initiates “Are gullible and waste their money…because they accept the priest’s explanation and do not enquire further into what they have heard.” According to Janko, the issue for the Derveni Papyrus’ author was not with religion, but instead with taking all religious ritual and text as literal.

However, the claims the Derveni Papyrus’ author made in writing may have been seen as blasphemous if they were presented publically and, as Janko says, “If the Athenians did sentence him to death for impiety, as they sentenced Diagoras of Melos [one of the proposed authors of the text], this would certainly have been in accord with the attitudes that they are documented to have held in the closing decades of the fifth century BC.” All of this leads one to wonder, who was within the funeral pyre and why did the individual have this text? These questions remain unanswered.

A UNESCO Inscription to Protect the Derveni Papyrus

UNESCO’s recent inscription has the goal to preserve the Derveni Papyrus as part of the Memory of the World Register “for present and future generations in the spirit of international cooperation and mutual understanding, building peace in the minds of women and men.” Well before UNESCO noted the importance of the Derveni Papyrus, it was already accepted as a significant manuscript by many scholars and, if one is interested, copies of the text in the original Greek or translated into English are available at several online sites, such as: the Imouseion Project and  the Art of Wise.

Source: http://www.ancient-origins.net

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