Journal: Percutio

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An annual published in hard copy in New Zealand and France paying special attention to the creative process and issues relating to translation.


Percutio is dedicated primarily to reflections upon the creative process, particularly in relation to work that bridges cultures.

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Percutio may, therefore, feature poetry, essays, extracts from novels, choreography, approaches to composition and journal entries in English and the language of creation.

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Ritual Performance and the Gold Leaves An introduction to Ancient Greek reliquary inscriptions upon gold leaf, by Ted Jenner. The author is working on a publication of translations (with selected original inscriptions and an in-depth Introduction) for Titus Books (expected in 2013). This essay was first published in Percutio 2009 (added 15.06.2010).



Ritual Performance and the Gold Leaves

The Gold Leaves are a series of small, thin gold lamellae dating from the late fifth century BC to one in the third AD, which have been discovered in various parts of what used to be the Greek world in tombs (but occasionally in other locations in cases where the tomb has been robbed of its contents). Rectangular or in the shape of ivy or myrtle leaves, sometimes folded into the form of a cylinder, these diminutive tablets were placed on the mouths or hands of dead initiates before burial. The texts inscribed on the leaves give instructions generally in a literary or Homeric verse on what path the soul should take in the afterlife (e.g. 'Petelia', 'Thessaly', texts and translations published in Percutio 2 (2008)), or on what the soul should say to Persephone, goddess of the dead, when confronting her in the Underworld as a suppliant. The emphasis is on purity and/or privilege; the deceased is identified as someone pure enough to belong to the community of the gods; he, very often she (many of these leaves have been found in the tombs of women), has credentials which enable her to drink from 'Memory's Lake' where, presumably, she will achieve total recall of her previous incarnations. Eventually, after a number of re-incarnations, she will join other initiates on their journey to Elysium.

A very contentious issue is the nature of the cult and ritual to which these leaves belong. Gunther Zuntz (1971) presented a forceful if biased argument in favour of a Pythagorean cult, based upon key features mentioned in the texts such as crucial distinctions between right and left paths and a spring of Memory and another of Lethe ('oblivion'). His argument, however, was overturned almost overnight by the discovery, at Hipponion in the deep south of Italy, of a gold leaf lying on the chest of a woman who had been buried c. 400 BC in a stone chest covered with stone slabs, i.e. in what is known as a cist-grave. The Hipponion leaf, possibly an ur-version, or something like it, of the so-called B-texts (i.e. those that direct the soul's journey in the Underworld), reads in translation as follows:

This is the leaf of Memory: when at death
. . .
to Hades' well-built halls; there is a spring on your right
and by it the cypress with its luminous sheen
where the souls of the dead descend to slake their thirst.
You must not go near this spring or drink its water.
Further on you will find cold water flowing from
Memory's lake; there are guardians standing over it.
Shrewdly, in their wisdom, they will ask you
why you scour the darkness of Hades the Destroyer.
Say: 'I am a son of Earth and starry Heaven.
I am parched with thirst and dying: quickly, give me
the cool water flowing from Memory's lake.'
And the kings of the Underworld will pity you
and they will give you water from Memory's lake
and then you will pass along the sacred way that other
initiates and bacchants tread to their glory.

The Bacchic initiates mentioned in the last line imply ritual and funerary practices with, at their centre, Dionysos as god of rebirth and regeneration. Bacchic rites were associated with Orphic rites by Herodotus (2.81) who, however, went on to say that such rites were really Egyptian and Pythagorean. But a close connection between Orphism and Bacchic initiation can be illustrated quite graphically by the bone tablets (5th c. BC) found at Olbia, formerly a Greek colony in the Crimea. Some of these tablets carry brief inscriptions, e.g. 'Life. Death. Life. Truth. Dio(nysos). Orphics', and are thought to be tokens of membership in an Orphic cult. Whatever the case, Pythagorean, Orphic, or Bacchic (and the Eleusinian Mysteries associated with Demeter and Persephone should not be left out of account), we are dealing with a mystery cult or cults in which only initiates were believed to achieve redemption and rebirth after death. It is quite possible that different leaves belong to different cults, and Radcliffe Edmonds (2004) has embraced this view. Each group of leaves place a different emphasis on the initiate's credentials: in the so-called 'A-texts' (in which the soul confronts Persephone), the stress is on ritual purity; in the 'B-texts' (e.g. 'Petelia', 'Hipponion'), divine lineage; in the leaf from Pelinna in Thessaly (see below), redemption at the hands of Dionysos Lusios ('Dionysos the Redeemer'). Even so, the A- and B-texts share the admonition to take the path to the right, and one of the Atexts and at least one of the B-texts contain, apparently, a reference to Memory's gift; the leaf from Pelinna shares with one of the A-texts the mysteriously resonant formula of the kid, ram or bull 'falling into milk'.

'There are all kinds of problems about these leaves', wrote M.L. West (1983), and here it might seem that I am complicating even further a subject already fraught with complications, but I feel it is necessary to ask if there is any evidence of ritual performance in the texts themselves. The subject is actually a promising field of research for it is quite possible that both the A- and B-texts reflect verse dialogues between soul and guardians spoken at initiation ceremonies or at the funerals of members of the cult concerned. We can even speculate where such dialogues might have taken place: at sanctuaries of chthonic gods such as the precinct of Persephone and Demeter at Akragas (modern Agrigento) in Sicily. This complex contains a labyrinthine enclosure where initiands might have experienced (endured?) a journey to Hades' kingdom and the mysteries of death and rebirth. The so-called 'Great Antrum' at Baiae in the Bay of Naples (dated at c. 500 BC) is a striking example of this kind of enclosure. A long passage, over 170 m. in length and oriented east-west, leads to an inner chamber and water tank pointing to the midsummer sunset. Here, at this chamber, initiands might have been presented to an imaginary Persephone, Eukles (Hades) and Eubouleus (Dionysos), declaring, as in the Atexts from Thurii, their purity and consanguinity with the gods, thereupon to be rewarded with a promise of immortality from some hierophantic voice 'offstage' impersonating Persephone. I should mention in this context that not far from Baiae lies Cumae where, in a necropolis apparently reserved for Dionysiac or Orphic initiates, an inscription (c. 450 BC) was found bearing the rubric, 'None but Bakkhoi may be buried here'.

Plutarch (fr.178) describes an experience of the Underworld in terms of an initiation, for initiations were often staged as journeys to the world of the dead. In the 19th century, the first of the B-texts to come to the notice of scholars, i.e. 'Petelia', was associated with the oracle of Trophonios at Lebadeia in central Greece. According to Pausanias (ix.39), a man who wanted to consult this oracle had to descend into a chasm, having first taken a draught from the spring of Forgetfulness (Lethe) to obliterate his memory of the past and then another from the spring of Memory to remember what he would see in his descent. When he returned from the innermost cave that he had eventually been drawn into feet first, he was taken to the nearby throne of Memory where he was asked by priests what he had discovered about his future. Apart from the rather superficial point that at Lebadeia the oracle seeker had to drink water from both springs, there is an enormous difference between the two quests in the purpose of the descent and the function of the waters of Memory. At Lebadeia, a living man descends into an Underworld to witness and remember a revelation about the future; in the B-texts, the soul of an initiate descends into the Underworld to remember its past life (or lives). In ritual, and here we are again assuming that the Gold Leaves reflect the practices of initiation, the waters of Memory might 'be used to symbolize the initiate's training in memory or understanding of the cycle of reincarnations and the things she must do in this life to remedy or atone for past lives' (Edmonds, pp.107-08).

But we can go further with Zuntz and Fritz Graf and detect something of an 'order of service' in at least two leaves where a kind of 'rhythmical prose' (Zuntz) temporarily replaces the verse. One of the leaves from Thurii in the south of Italy was found wrapped up inside a larger leaf placed next to the skull of the deceased (male) who had been cremated in a wooden coffin some time during the 4th century BC. The text reads in translation:

When your soul forsakes the light of the sun,
take the right [ ] each step with all due care.
'Welcome! after an ordeal you have never been through before.
A god you are and mortal no longer. You are the kid that fell into milk.
'Welcome and rejoice! Take the path to the right
for the sacred meadows and groves of Persephone.'

These lines may lack the stunning imagery of the B-texts, but what is particularly interesting is the way a kind of hieratic prose (line 4) emerges from the dactylic verse in the first two lines and the versified prose formula of the third line. In fact, the most important line in this text, acclaiming the deification of the initiate, is in prose, but a rhythmical prose, for in the Greek the two parallel clauses each consist of nine syllables and three accents. This transition from verse to prose at the most significant point in the text most probably reflects ritual procedure at the funeral or the initiation of a Bakkhos (Bacchic initiate; see next text). At the very least it may echo a formula used in such ritual. Zuntz adduces an intriguing analogy: when the Pythagorean mystic Apollonios of Tyana vanished in a temple in Crete, his followers heard a voice calling, 'go forth from earth, go forth to heaven, go forth.' The Greek announces deification in a 'rhythmical prose' consisting of three parallel clauses.

Possibly all the verse and prose formulae on the gold leaves echo ritual. If the leaf from Thurii does, then so too the more recently discovered examples from Pelinna in Thessaly in mainland Greece, which have been dated by numismatic evidence to the end of the 4th century BC. These two lamellae, found on the chest of a female skeleton, are in the shape of ivy leaves; the verse, almost identical on each leaf, mentions Bakkhios (Dionysos) by name as having released the soul of the deceased; while the statuette of a maenad (female votary of Dionysos) was found in the same grave as the skeleton. Ivy, Bakkhios and maenad together spell out Dionysiac mysteries to which these leaves, like those from Hipponion and Thurii, belonged, for the Pelinna leaves return to the 'kid fallen into milk' formula:

On this day you died, thrice blessed, and came into being.
Say to Persephone that the Bakkhios himself released you.
A bull you leapt into milk,
suddenly you leapt into milk,
a ram you fell into milk.
You have wine as your mark of good fortune.
And the same rewards await you beneath the earth
______ as await the other blessed souls.

And once again the text is a combination of dactylic verse and prose with the latter confined to the acclamation of divinity (lines 3-5), this time in three parallel clauses each consisting of eight syllables and three accents. The dactylic verse continues in the last two lines, just as the prose on the Thurii leaf is followed by two lines of verse (trochaic and dactylic). In other words, the prose acclamations in both these texts stand out, as they must have done in an oral performance which would have been liturgical, not literary, in nature (the texts themselves are of course liturgy, not literature). The voice in both the Thurii leaf and the Pelinna leaves has been described by Graf as that of a 'master of ceremonies' who praises the soul at crucial points in the journey through the Underworld and promises it 'future bliss'. Perhaps the voice is imagined to be that of Orpheus himself, but it can also be interpreted as that of a priest at the funeral of an initiate or at an initiation ritual, which was a preparation of the soul for the journey into and through the Underworld to the place of reincarnation or, in the case of the leaves discussed in this paper, to the Elysium that ultimately awaited it.

'Suddenly you leapt into milk.' This is the milk of paradise, of course, but does this phrase stem from a proverbial expression, falling or leaping into milk meaning something like finding oneself in the midst of abundance (Graf )? Or does it refer, if only indirectly, to the rôle of Persephone Kourotrophos, the goddess who nourishes recently deceased initiates conceived as infants at the breast (Edmonds)? Then again, given the rather distant and obscure connections between these leaves and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the phrase might have been inspired by the 'milk-yielding tree' of the Egyptian Underworld. Whatever the case, the milk is surely symbolic of the state of paradise into which the initiate has now leapt or fallen like the three animals associated with Dionysos, albeit one (the ram) very tenuously in the evidence at our disposal. By this means, the initiate is indirectly equated with the god via a comparison with one or more of his emblematic animals. Is it any wonder that the image and its purport ('A god you are and mortal no longer') was reserved for rhythmical prose? Let Gunther Zuntz have the last word: 'the transition from verse to prose is a uniquely effective means of conveying the significance of a uniquely effective statement. Thus in the canon of the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church, where everything else may be set to music but not the words of Jesus instituting the Eucharist. (Zuntz, p.342).




Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the

'Orphic' Gold Tablets, Cambridge University Press, 2004

Fritz Graf & Sarah Iles Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic

Gold Tablets, Routledge: London & New York, 2007

C.G. Hardie, 'The Great Antrum at Baiae', Papers of the British School at Rome 37

(1969), 14-33

M.L. West, The Orphic Poems, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988

Gunther Zuntz, Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia,

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971