The 'Orphic' Gold Tablets:
Near Eastern and Egyptian Resonances

P. Sidney Horky

University of Southern California

This paper attempts to contextualize the material remains of Orphic religion in the 4th Century BCE in Magna Graecia with Near Eastern and Egyptian traditions.  It fixes elements of Egyptian eschatology and rhetoric as well as Zoroastrian hermeneutics alongside the familiar and well-studied Greek influences.

The so-called 'Orphic' Gold Tablets have attracted much attention especially since the discovery of a folded gold lamella in 1974 in Vibo Valentia (ancient Hipponion).  The Hipponion tablet (early 5th BCE), found interred in the tomb of a woman, is comparable with tablets found in the Greek Mainland, Sicily, and Magna Graecia (4th BCE – 2nd CE) in that it describes in Greek hexameters the katabasis of the initiate to the house of Hades, where she approaches Persephone.  The initiate, then, is expected to repeat what appears to be a symbolon for propitiation of the goddess: "I am the child of Gaia and Starry Ouranos."  Following this, so go the tablets, the initiate may join the mystai and bacchoi in revelry.

Thanks to recent editions of the 'Orphic' Tablets (Pugliese Carratelli, 2001 and Bernabé, 2004), scholars are able to synthesize the Hipponion tablet with new discoveries (including lamellae at Pelinna and Pherai) and other 'Orphic' testimonia and fragments, including the Derveni Papyrus, a partially-burned papyrus roll found in a tomb near Thessalonika that analyzes a missing "Orphic Rhapsody" by employing enigmatic hermeneutics (Struck, 2004 and Betegh, 2004).  This Orphic eschatology of the mid-4th BCE imitates other mobile philosophical and religious communities (e.g. the Mazdain Magi, followers of the Iranian religion of Zoroaster) while it employs traditions derived ultimately from enigmatic interpreters.  Indeed, certain aspects of Zoroastrianism are manifest in parallel traditions found in Magna Graecia: Orphism and Pythagoreanism.  If we can posit Orphic institutions in the Pythagorean city-states of Croton and Metapontum alongside Epizephyrian Locri, the presence of the Hipponion tablet as a phylactery for the female initiate is unsurprising and paradigmatic for more widespread participation in Orphic practice throughout Magna Graecia.  Moreover, it is probable that the cultural context for such religious practice is more commonly associated with certain wisdom traditions adopted from Egypt and Persia, whence the followers of Zoroaster had migrated to establish the rites of the Magi.

I propose to compare certain ancient historical and hermeneutic traditions espoused by the "Orphic" Gold Tablets and the author of the Derveni Papyrus with eschatological stories about the Zoroastrian Magus Bolus of Mendes as well as contemporaneous epigraphical texts from Egypt that describe the voyage of the dead in the afterlife.  Such a presentation hopes to substantiate important connections between Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Italian wisdom traditions and to propose that a certain Onomacritus of Locri was a probable medium for transmission of these rites across the Mediterranean.


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