New Evidence for the Early Written Transmission of Greek Hexameters

From before the Macedonian conquest of Egypt and the consequent preservation of Greek papyri there, we have almost no direct written evidence for the handing down of Greek poetry. The large exception has been the "Orphic" gold tablets, with their instructions to the dead, from South Italy and elsewhere, the oldest of which, from Hipponion, dates ca 400 BC; it is only from this cluster of inscriptions that we can get any clear example of the pre-Ptolemaic filiations of any Greek poetic text. Since the publication of the Hipponian text in 1974, there have come to light several early witnesses on lead tablets, one dating in the 5th century BC, of another set of hexameters; these inscriptions, which Roy D. Kotansky and I are preparing for publication, were the subject of a talk given on 30 January to the CSAD.

The Getty Museum houses a lead tablet from Selinous in Sicily, with 3 columns of hexameters in epic-Ionic whose letter-forms suggest the earlier 4th century BC and whose mistakes point to a model in an earlier alphabet. Its Col. A begins with a promise of overall protection to whoever will inscribe certain "holy verses" on a tin tablet and will hide them in a "house of stone", and then it gives the verses themselves, which tell of shadowy mountains, a goat to be brought from the garden of Persephone and milked, Demeter, torches, Hekate, frightening shouts, and a god, the pronouncement of Demeter's "god-spoken words" - all redolent of the legomena of mystery rites. Col. B, fragmentary at the top, opens with phrases about the protection of cities, etc., evidently a prelude to its main incantation, which begins with the so-called Ephesia Grammata and refers to a mystic shout along the highway of the blessed. Col. C, more fragmentary, seems to end with a macarism. The general arrangement of each of the 3 columns seems to be instructions followed by a core incantation (I call their archetypes φ, χ, and ψ), rather like the Hipponian and other early gold "Orphic" texts, their own cores being the words that the initiate is to speak to judges in the Underworld.

Tentative stemma showing the degenerations of χ into the 4 forms in which we have it today. The archetype was old enough to have undergone translation and several distortions by the time its earliest extant witness was inscribed in the 5th century.

The "core" verses of the "Orphic" texts had a wider circulation than the longer forms, and this turns out to be true of the Selinuntine verses as well. φ turns up on two other metal tablets: embedded within the prose of an erotic spell on a lead curse tablet of the 2nd or 3rd century AD from Egypt, and garbled, in a puzzling mixture of Greek and Latin letters, on a silver tablet of the mid-3rd century AD from Rome. Of χ we have a copy on a lead tablet of the 4th century B.C. from Phalasarna on Crete and also, in apparently two separate West Greek translations, on lead tablets of the 5th century BC from Himera and of the early 4th from Lokroi Epizephyrioi. The Lokrian text also contains part of the macarism ψ.

The tablet from Phalasarna was published in 1899 and has long been discussed as being the earliest epigraphical witness of the so-called Ephesia Grammata. The tablets from Himera and Lokroi now show earlier occurrences still but bring us no closer to understanding these grammata, as enigmatic today as they were in Antiquity: aski kataski lix tetrax, etc. Dr Kotansky and I ask ourselves whether they may have originated as corruptions of the opening of φ, with its phrase kata skierôn oreôn "down from shadowy mountains". One of our literary sources for these grammata is Hesychios, who quotes from his own source: a complaint about charlatans who offer ignorant explanations of these words. The passage invites comparison with the Derveni papyrus; with its similar complaints about the misinterpretations of 'holy writ': can it be that Hesychios' source was a commentary on χ?

Those who heard my paper will remember that it took a long 90 minutes. I thank the audience for their patience. There was no time to include what I add here, about my favorite part of the accumulation of these several texts. I first stumbled onto the hexameters of φ as I was reading a late erotic spell. Shortly afterwards, Roy Kotansky sent me his transcription of the Selinuntine hexameters. From Duke University, where the strange silver tablet is housed, Kent Rigsby sent me a photograph. A few years ago, Felice Costabile sent me a copy of his publication of the Lokrian tablet. I was preparing a note about this last for ZPE when Jaime Curbera sent me a photocopy of Maria-Teresa Manni Piraino's publication of a fragmentary and discouraging lead tablet from Himera - a drawing only, with no attempt at a transcription. My wife and I were about to drive to the Peloponnese, to the source of the Styx. I took along the Lokrian notes and the photocopy of the drawing from Himera. When we arrived, she, being a more enthusiastic hiker than I, headed off, and I sat in the car with my notes, eventually looking at the photocopy. It was a glorious summer day. Some time later, she came back, with a thermos of Stygian water. "Drink this," she said. "No. Look at this," I said: the lead tablet from Himera, of the 5th century BC, to judge from its letters, was the earliest witness of the Ephesia Grammata of the second column of the hexameters!

David Jordan


Return to Table of Contents



Created on Sunday, 22 September, 2002: 11:45:03