One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.
1. What topic do you study?
I study the mortuary contexts associated with Orphic gold tablets. These tablets are thin (about 1mm in thickness) sheets of gold placed in tombs all around the Greek speaking world from the late Archaic to the early Roman Imperial era. My method integrates recent advances in the field of mortuary archaeology, and frames mortuary assemblages in conversation with a theoretical toolkit known as “lived religion”. This theoretical perspective focuses on the social contexts and experiences of ancient practitioners, emphasizing individual and group agency within larger systems of meaning. The interpretative gains accrued from studying the tablets within their archaeological context allow me to move beyond an understanding of Orphic tablets as mere texts, reconstructing them instead as complex multivalent material objects integrated within rich assemblages and redolent with meaning regarding ritual and eschatological belief systems.
The Orphic tablets were mainly found in tombs in Magna Graecia, including Sicily, the Greek mainland, Crete, and Asia Minor. They contain inscriptions which describe what the soul is to do upon entering the Underworld. The information they contain can be divided into two categories. One group of tablets records which is the correct body of water from which the soul may drink to retain the memory of the life they lived. The other group focuses on what the soul should say to Persephone during their audience with her. If the correct phrases are uttered (recorded in these tablets) then Persephone will grant the soul access to the Elysian Fields. The soul will thus be free of the cycle of reincarnation on Earth.
Scholars have posited that the timeline recorded in these tablets, each one focusing on one aspect of arrival to and navigation within the Underworld, could be reconstructed as follows: the soul first is urged to remember to drink from the second body of water in their path, and not the first. This is either a Lake of Memory or a Spring of Memory located next to a shinning cypress tree and guarded by unidentified beings. Then the soul is presumably brought in front of Persephone to whom they must confirm that they have been “released” from Bacchus – the implication being that Bacchus has saved them. In this tradition the god Bacchus (Dionysos) is a reincarnated version of Zagreus, Persephone’s son who was dismembered, the pieces of his body swallowed by the Titans.
2. What sources or data do you use?
The sources I draw from for this study are material as well as textual. My focus is on examining the tablets as objects within their archaeological context. So far, scholarship has focused on the text inscribed on the tablets; in contrast, issues of production, material properties, and archaeological assemblages will form the body of my work. To do this I examine the tablets in tandem with the rest of the objects in the tomb, where these appear. Of the tombs with a reliable publication record, some have yielded a plethora of other ceramic and metal objects, while some only contained the bones of the deceased along with a tablet. My study reinterprets the mortuary assemblages by close examination of all burial goods along with the textual information on the tablets themselves. There is no discernible pattern in grave good deposition, regarding the shape and size of the tablet, the latter’s placement within the tomb, and the textual information it contained. All these points of interest are so varied that a study on them must be done on a case-by-case basis.
3. How does your work shed light on real people in the past?
Given the nature of my evidence and the methodology I have synthesized, my study, termed “Death as a Continuum”, promises to shine light on how people understood and interpreted their belief in this little-known version of the worship of Dionysos. These tablets, containing information into Orphic theogony and Bacchic worship, hint at a tradition which deviates from what we perceive to be ancient Greek funerary norms. In it, Dionysos is believed to be the third incarnation of the god Zagreus who was the son of Zeus and Persephone. In contrast to the Hesiodic tradition which stipulates that Zeus has no successor, Zagreus was believed to be the one to assume Zeus’ cosmic throne. However, while still a baby, Zagreus was defeated, and his heart was reincarnated as Semele’s son (fathered again by Zeus).
Another point of deviation from funerary norms is that humanity is said to arise from the ashes of the disintegrated Titans who swallowed a piece of Zagreus’ body; after learning of their crime, Zeus hurled his lightning bolt at the Titans resulting in their disintegration. In this way, humans have a dual nature, one titanic and corruptible, their physical bodies, and one divine and immortal, their soul (this is the piece of Zagreus’ body). For this reason, the followers of this tradition must seek Persephone’s forgiveness upon arrival into Hades; their very existence is painful for her.
This version of the afterlife is proof that ancient Greek religion operated in ways we still cannot understand. There was a more personal relationship that could be felt between humans and their gods. Whereas previous funerary norms would showcase the public/communal experience of religion, this Orphic/Bacchic cult shows how personal faith in the divine may be felt and manifested. The grave goods deposited with the deceased all hint at maintaining their identity as initiates of the Orphic Dionysos even in death. The deceased followers of the Orphic Dionysos achieve what they have been working towards in life. Each tomb tells a particular person’s story, their very own version of the common journey traversed by all other initiates to be free of the cycle of reincarnation on Earth and enter the Elysian Fields. This metaphysical place was once believed to have been reserved for heroes. Considering this evidence, it emerges as accessible by all those who followed the Orphic Dionysos, no glorious (i.e., divine) pedigree needed, only forgiveness from the Queen of the Underworld.
Bernabé, A., and Jiménez San Cristóbal, A. I. 2008. Instructions for the Netherworld: The Orphic Gold Tablets. Leiden.
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Edmonds, R. G. 2004. Myths of the Underworld Journey. Plato, Aristophanes and the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets. Cambridge.
Edmonds, R. G. 2011 (ed.). Further along the Path: Recent Approaches to the “Orphic” Gold Tablets. Cambridge.
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Dimakis, N. and Djikstra, T. M. (eds). 2020. Mortuary Variability and Social Diversity in Ancient Greece: Studies on Ancient Greek Death and Burial. Oxford Archaeopress.
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McGuire, M. B. 2008. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Oxford.
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Rüpke, J. (ed.). 2014. The Individual in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean. Oxford.
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Tzifopoulos, Y. 2010. ‘Paradise’ Earned: The Bacchic-Orphic Gold Lamellae of Crete. Washington, D.C.
Katerina Apokatanidis is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, Department of Classics. She works with Prof. Sarah Murray on the Archaeology of Greek ritual and religion in the late Archaic to early Classical period. She specialises in the materiality of the Orphic Gold Tablets and their role in Greek ritual. She obtained her BA in Classical Philology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. For her first MA at Durham University, U.K., she worked with Prof. J. H. Haubold on the role of women in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women. She examined the significance of the women in the narrative as opposed to their half-divine children. For her second MA at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, she worked with Prof. A. Faulkner on the gender interplay in Nonnos’ Dionysiaka. She studied the power dynamics between Dionysos and two of his most important enemies in Nonnos’ text as based on the reversal of gender expectations. Her current work at the University of Toronto provides a new angle of examination of the relationship between mortals and gods in ancient Greek thought. It aims to add to our interpretation of the Orphic Gold Tablets by examining them as objects of a cult practice and funerary culture which unified people from different social and political contexts as well as time periods, transcending ties with the polis.