Álvarez on Kotwick, Der Papyrus von Derveni

Below you find a review from Bryn Mawr Classical Review on an important, recent edition (with introduction, text, commentary) of the Derveni Papyrus, as important a source for ancient Orphism as we have.

BMCR 2020.05.13

Der Papyrus von Derveni

Mirjam Kotwick, Der Papyrus von Derveni : Griechisch-deutsch. Sammlung Tusculum. Berlin ; Boston: De Gruyter, 2017. Pp. 383. ISBN 9783110414738 $57.99.


Kotwick’s remarkable book, included in the prestigious Sammlung Tusculum of Latin and Greek texts, fills a historical gap in the German language scholarship on the Derveni Papyrus (DP) and Orphic studies in general. Strikingly, it offers the first complete translation of this outstanding text into German, since W. Burkert, one of the scholars who contributed most to the textual reconstruction of the DP and its comprehension, never published one. The volume includes the most updated text of the DP, established by R. Janko, with new readings in numerous points, especially in the first columns, and an extensive commentary, with complete information and detailed explanations of every passage.

The first part of the volume is a comprehensive introduction (11-63), in which Kotwick presents the most important aspects of the DP and its author (DA): the circumstances of the find, relevant dates (of the papyrus, of the text it contains and of the Orphic poem which is quoted and interpreted), its troubled editorial history, the theories about the identity of the author (none of them conclusive, but all useful nonetheless), the content of the treatise, the plot of the Orphic theogony, its comparison with the Rhapsodic Theogony (with which it has many points in common), the physical doctrines of the DA and its sources (pre-Socratic authors: Anaxagoras, Diogenes of Apollonia, Empedocles, the atomists, Heraclitus), the allegoresis of the Orphic theogony, the interpretation of the rites, and the profile of the author and his historic context. In my view, the most appealing sections are those devoted to the debts of the DA’s doctrines to early philosophy and to his exegetical methods. In the first one (34-35), Kotwick notes that the DA is well acquainted with the different teachings on the cosmos and uses some of their ideas in a creative manner to elaborate his own model. It belongs to the post-Parmenidean tradition and departs from the ex nihilo nihil fit-principle. The comparison with other thinkers, especially with Empedocles and Heraclitus, is very illuminating. In her treatment of the allegorical method, Kotwick observes that for the DA there is an analogy between the regularity and order of the cosmos and that of the Orphic poem: he has constructed it with single words, just like the universe consists of tiny particles (48). According to this assumption, the DA follows two steps in his exegesis: he atomizes the poem, distinguishing key words, and then he analyzes them, usually looking for other words that have the same sound (homonymy) or a similar one (paronomasy), or examining the different meanings of a term (polysemy) (50-51). The DA isolates a key word from its mythical context, deduces its meaning through a linguistic technic and inserts it into a new context, a physical one (53). From the microscopic analysis of the DA, Kotwick draws the conclusion that the sequence of events in the mythical story and in the cosmic exposition cannot be paralleled and there is no exact equivalence between the reign of a god (Cronus or Zeus) and a cosmic stage, since the DA works with individual terms (54, and 222-223). However, as A. Bernabé has recently argued,[1] the DA does build his cosmogony according to the divine kingships and successions: for him Cronus’ rule indicates the predominance of heat (col. IX 5-10, XIV 2-10) and Zeus’ seizure of kingship amounts to the control of that heat by the Nous-air through the separation of a fiery mass that becomes the present sun (col. XV 1-5). For her final account of the personality and context of the DA (59-63, see also 46), Kotwick follows the intriguing picture outlined by R. Edmonds (CP 103, 16–39): he is a professional in mysteries and rites who lives in the context of strong intellectual rivalry in the Athens between the fifth and fourth centuries. Kotwick’s introduction is extremely clear, ordered and complete, covering the views that constitute the communis opinio, but also offering also some personal insights. In every section she quotes all the relevant bibliography.

Next we find the text and translation of the DP in parallel pages, with the quotations of Heraclitus and ‘Orpheus’ in bold in the Greek (68-103): Kotwick has adopted Janko’s newly prepared text, based on the autopsy of the fragments and on more than 10.000 high-resolution microphotographs (105) (some of the new readings were advanced in ZPE 200, 2016, 3-23, such as the quote of Parmenides B 1.1 DK in the very beginning of the DP). In a few places, Janko has accepted emendations suggested by Kotwick, which she outlines in her commentary. The columns have a new numeration (40 + the number in previous editions). The reason is that in col. VI Janko interprets an omicron in the margin with a dash beneath it (O) as a stichometric sign indicating line 1500. Assuming that each column had around 33 lines, col. VI must actually be XLVI (however, here I will use the traditional numbers for the sake of clarity). Another novelty is the arrangement of the text: instead of maintaining the original lines of the columns, Janko presents a continuous text, divided into 97 paragraphs whose number is used in the book to allude to the passages. This choice may stem from editorial needs, since the Tusculum series does not include full-scale critical editions. However, the system is cumbersome for specialists, since it makes it difficult to compare the text with previous editions and to know the position of the lacunae in every line. To make the comparison easier, in pp. 357-363 there is a table with equivalences between the new paragraphs and the columns and lines of the editio princeps of 2006.

The text of the first columns (Janko’s 39-43) is necessarily uncertain due to the large quantity of small scraps and the extreme difficulty of establishing their position. In these columns, Janko has opted to offer a readable text with many supplements in the gaps, in which he demonstrates great ingenuity and command of Greek vocabulary. Nevertheless, the resulting text is, in my view, often odd: in several sentences the order of the words is not natural (the genitives are separated by some words from the word they accompany),[2] the verb has an inadequate subject[3] and the general idea is not easy to grasp or too puzzling (f. ex. “the daimones… are solemn oaths”).[4] I find it preferable to leave only the certain sequences and offer exempli gratia reconstructions in the commentary.

In the rest of the columns there are also many new supplements, some of them very attractive, others too uncertain. Since it is impossible to assess them all in this review, I will quote the proposals I consider more remarkable:

-In col. IV 7: in Heraclitus’ quotation, Janko has recognized the word [κόϲ]μου: “the sun, according to the nature of the world, has the size of a man’s foot” (72).

-In col. VI 4 Janko has proposed κλητ]έοι, “must be called”, which Kotwick has improved as νοητ]έοι, “must be considered”, a convincing proposal, in reference to the daimones interpreted as souls (74, 144).

-col. VII 2: the denomination of the poem as a hymn is not to be read anymore and instead Kotwick proposes ἀοιδ]ὴν and Janko, just after that, ὀκ[νο]ίη̣, “(the reader) shrinks back (from the poem)”, in reference to the exclusion of the profane in the first verse of the poem (74, 151). The reading is uncertain and the meaning somewhat puzzling, as is Janko’s proposal ἔφθ]αρ̣το for the next sentence, allusive to the sense of the poem which “has been distorted through the poetry” and is not obvious for the many. The term is too drastic and the pluperfect tense difficult to justify.

-col. VII 15: Janko has been able to recover part of one of the initial verses of the Orphic poem: ἔργ᾿ ο̣[ὐ]κ̣ ἀτ[έλεϲτα] “deeds not unaccomplished”, no doubt in reference to Zeus, to whom Night “predicted everything that was right for him to accomplish” (τελέεϲ]θαι, Orph. fr. 6.4 Bernabé) (76, 162-163).

-For the verse quoted in col. XV 13 (Orph. fr. 11.1), Kotwick has devised: Μῆτιν κάπ̣[πιεν, ὃϲ δὲ {ε}πόρ]ε̣ν βαϲιληΐδατιμ̣[ήν], “he swallowed Metis, who gave him royal dignity” (with the possibility of ὅϲ τε), which improves previous supplements (86, 233-235).

-For the next verse (Orph. fr. 11.2) Janko proposes: ἐϲ μ[έϲϲον καταθεὶϲ κεφαλὴν κ]αὶ ἶναϲ ἁπά[ϲαϲ], “(after putting in the middle the head) and all the forces”. (86, 236). This very appealing reconstruction could explain why Zeus is called “head and middle”: Ζεὺϲ κεφα[λή, Ζεὺϲ μέϲ]ϲα in a subsequent verse (Orph. fr. 14.2).

-col. XVI 11-12: the supplements make perfect sense: οὐ γὰρ̣ [ἐξῆν τοια]ῦτα εἶναι [τὰ νῦν] ἐ̣ό̣ντα ἄν̣[ε]υ τοῦ Νοῦ̣: “It would not have been possible that the things-that-are-now are such as they are without the Nous” (86, 244-245).

-col. XIX 11-13: in a passage where the DA explains why Zeus is called king by Orpheus, there are possible allusions to the political sphere, since votes and citizens seem to be mentioned (ψή]φ̣ων, πολι]τῶν, Janko). Even if there are many opinions in a council, finally all the votes are reduced to one decision (βουλή, Kotwick) (92, 275-276).

The main part of the book is occupied by Kotwick’s commentary (108-350). It is divided into paragraphs, introduced by the number, the equivalence in the editio princeps and the subject (f. ex.: §15 (V.6-10 KPT): Der Unglaube der Menschen). Since each column does not have a summary, these headings play a similar role. Then we find the lemmata in bold, with a sentence, expression or word in Greek and German, followed by a detailed commentary. It includes explanations of the meaning of key or obscure terms and of the grammar, as well as a summary of the main interpretations (with the pertinent bibliography) and the arguments for preferring one of them, or a new one. I find most of Kotwick’s perspectives well founded and convincing. For example, in col. X 3-10 Kotwick recognizes a hermeneutic principle of the DA, identification based on implication: “teaching” and “saying” are the same (3), “for it is not possible to teach without saying whatever” (3-4). “Teaching” (διδάϲκειν) is in “saying” (λέγειν) (5-6), as a subspecies of the latter. They “are not separated” from each other (ἐχ̣[ω]ρ[ί]ϲθη, 7), which also means they “are not different”, therefore they are identical (184-185, see also 52-53).

Regarding the vexatissima quaestio of the meaning of the αἰδοῖον swallowed by Zeus in the Orphic poem (Orph. fr. 8, col. XIII 4), I think Kotwick is right defending it has to be taken as “venerable” and alluding to the god Protogonos, not as “phallus”, specifically that of Uranus (207-212, see also 29). In Orph. fr. 8, the personification of aither is very likely, but in my view the translation of the accusative should be “from the Aither”, not “into the Aither” (82), 207-208, 353), as it appears in the only passage where ἐκθρῴϲκω is used transitively (AP 9.371.1).

Although Kotwick has accepted Janko’s new text of the papyrus, she is independent enough and in several instances she prefers her own readings (f. ex. p. 155, 156) and interpretations (f. ex. 166, 206).

The commentary is followed by an Appendix (351-355) with the text and the translation of the Orphic poem. It would have been perhaps more useful for readers not used to the DP to have it before the commentary, in order to better understand the allegorical interpretations and analyses of the DA.

Next there is the aforementioned concordance between Janko’s columns and paragraphs and the columns of the editio princeps (357-363) and the quoted bibliography (365- 383), which is very copious and up to date (although the size of the font is too small). In the starting section, the first exhaustive bibliography on the DP is not mentioned: M. S. Funghi, “Bibliography of the Derveni Papyrus,” in A. Laks-G. W. Most (eds.), Studies on the Derveni Papyrus, Oxford, 1997, 175-185. A few publications quoted in the book are absent in the bibliography.[5] Some valuable books and articles are not mentioned, such as Tortorelli, M. 2006. Figli della Terra e del Cielo Stellato. Testi orfici con traduzione e commento, Napoli (with the text of the DP, an Italian translation and a brief commentary) and the chapters of I. Papadopoulou, K. Tsantsanoglou, and Y. Z. Tzifopoulos in I. Papadopoulou-L. Muellner (eds.), Poetry as Initiation: The Center for Hellenic Studies Symposium on the Derveni Papyrus, Washington, 2014. There are very few typos.[6]

In conclusion, Kotwick’s is an excellent book, with important new readings in many passages of the Orphic poem and of the prose treatise and a much-needed complete translation into German. The introduction and the commentary are carefully written and contain all the necessary information to understand the DP in general and in every single passage, with original suggestions at many points. It is a fundamental contribution for scholars and readers of the German language, but also for anyone interested in ancient Greek religion, philosophy or literature, who will find its consultation and reading highly rewarding for the richness of its content and ideas.


[1] “The Commentary of the Derveni Papyrus: Pre-Socratic Cosmogonies at Work”, in M. A. Santamaría (ed.), The Derveni Papyrus. Unearthing Ancient Mysteries, Leiden-Boston, 2019, 108-125.

[2] F. ex., §5: ὕδατοϲ δ’ ε̣[ἶ]ναι δη[λοῖ τοια]ῦ̣[τα ϲημ]εῖα; §9: οἱ] δὲ [δ]αίμονεϲ οἳ κατὰ [τοὺϲ μ]ά̣γουϲ τιμὰϲ [ἀ]έ̣ξ̣ο̣υϲι [τῶν] θεῶν; §10: αἰτίην[δ’ἔ]χουϲι [τοῦ ποε]ῖν̣ ̣το̣ύτο[υϲ] ἄ̣οινα [ἱερά].

[3] §8: [τοὺϲ] μ̣ὴ ἐξώλεαϲ [τιμῶϲι χ]οαὶ.

[4] §9: οἱ] δὲ [δ]αίμονεϲ … πα]ρ̣’ ἑκάϲτο`ι΄ϲ ὅρ̣[κοι] μεγ̣ά̣[λο]ι εἰϲίν κτλ.

[5] Dorandi, T. (2000): “Le commentaire dans la tradition papyrologique: quelques cas controversés”, in M. O. Goulet-Cazé (ed.), Le commentaire entre tradition et innovation, Paris, 15-27; Tortorelli Ghidini, M. (1989): “Nephele: una metafora orfica arcaica”, La Parola del Passato 44, 29-36;Beckman, G. (2011): “Primordial Obstetrics: “The Song of Emergence” (CTH 344)”, in M. Hutter-S. Hutter-Braunsar (eds.), Hethitische Literatur Überlieferungsprozesse, Textstrukturen, Ausdrucksformen und Nachwirken, Münster, 25-33); Radner, K. (2005): Die Macht des Namens: Altorientalische Strategien zur Selbsterhaltung, Wiesbaden.

[6] 78, 352: τρόφοϲ; 80, 193, 352: τελεέc]θαι; 84, 229, 233, 352: μητιέτα; 107: Parmendies; 146: 565-75, not 5.565-75; 153: νομόθετηϲ; 179: αἴνγμα; 190: Autoriät; 310: Ὀ̣ρ̣φ̣[ευϲ; 368, 371, 382: Boston, not Bosten; 373, in Graf (1988): “Men”, not “Man”; 373, in Graf and Johnston (2013): “Tablets”, not “Tablet”; 374, in Henrichs (1998): “Ansichten griechischer Rituale”, not “Ansichten und Rituale”; 377, in Marcovich (1967): Mérida, not Merida.