Orphic Gold Tablets

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ORPHIC GOLD TABLETS . The Orphic Gold Tablets are thirty-five small pieces of gold foil that have been found in graves scattered throughout ancient Greece and Rome. The tablets are inscribed with texts in ancient Greek that vary in length from one word to sixteen lines of poetry. The longer texts provide instructions and information to guide the soul of the deceased as it makes its way through the underworld, and to ensure that it receives preferential treatment from the rulers there.

The tablets were labeled Orphic in the early twentieth century because scholars thought their statements reflected the tenets of a religious system the ancient Greeks and Romans believed was invented and promulgated by the legendary musician Orpheus. However, newer discoveries of tablets that refer to bacchoi, to the "Bacchic one," and to thyrsoi (staffs carried by worshippers of the god Bacchus) indicate that the tablets are associated with mystery cults in which Bacchus (also called Dionysos) and his mother Persephone were the most important deities. Calling the tablets Orphic is not completely erroneous, however, for verses engraved on the tablets probably were excerpted from a poem attributed to Orpheus. Some scholars now refer to the tablets as Orphic, some as Bacchic, and others simply as the Gold Tablets.

Most of the tablets have been found in southern Italy, northern Greece, or Crete, but one is from Sicily and another one from Rome. Most are from the fourth century bce, although one from Hipponion (southern Italy) may be as early as the fifth century bce and the tablet from Rome dates to the second or third century ce. Several were found on top of corpses, near a corpse's hand, or, in one case, in a corpse's mouth; another was found inside of an amulet case on a necklace. A list of all of the tablets, with notes and translations into Spanish, can be found in Bernabé and Jiménez San Cristóbal.

Gunther Zuntz divided the longer tablets that had been discovered by his time into two groups: A and B. Subsequently discovered tablets display qualities of both groups (prompting Bernabé and San Cristóbal to eschew the use of categories completely), but Zuntz's division still has heuristic value. The A tablets are distinguished by the soul's declaration of its purity and its kinship to the gods, its escape from the "circle of grief" (probably a reference to reincarnation), and its expectation that Persephone, the Queen of the Dead, will bestow special honors and rights upon it due to its initiation into Bacchic mysteries. There is a mention of death by lightning in three A tablets and a cryptic reference to animals falling into milk in four; the meanings of these statements are much debated. The B tablets are marked by descriptions of the underworld landscape, instructions to avoid drinking the subterranean waters of forgetfulness, and statements that the soul must pronounce to the guardians at a lake of memory before it is allowed to drink there.

There is no certainty about the ritual contexts in which the tablets were inscribed and given to the individuals in whose graves they were found, although it is certain that initiation into Bacchic mysteries was a prerequisite. It is possible that tablets were sometimes bestowed on an initiate at the time of initiation and subsequently buried with him or her, and that sometimes tablets were bestowed only at the time of burial, perhaps by an anxious family member.

The myth that underlies the tablets and the rituals connected with them, which is alluded to by some of the tablets' hexameters, concerns the birth of Dionysos to Zeus and his daughter Persephone; the subsequent murder, dismemberment, and consumption of the young Dionysos by jealous gods called Titans; Zeus's incineration of the Titans with lightning bolts; the emergence of humanity from their sooty remains (thus, humanity is largely composed of defective, Titanic material, although a bit of the consumed Dionysos lightens its composition); and Dionysos's miraculous rebirth from the womb of Semele, a mortal woman, made possible by the fact that the goddess Athena had snatched Dionysos's heart away from the hungry Titans.

The myth helps to explain why humanity must atone to Persephone, the grieving mother, for the deeds of the Titans (humanity's ancestors), lest Persephone make humans suffer in her realm, the underworld. They are able to do so by celebrating the mysteries of Persephone's son. It was probably during the mysteries that adherents were first given the directions about how to behave and what to do in the underworld that are found, in abbreviated form, on the Gold Tablets. The complete myth, as narrated above, must be pieced together from a number of ancient sources that span ten centuries, a fact that has sometimes caused scholars to question the relationship of individual episodes to each other, or even the very existence of the myth itself in antiquity. The 1990s saw attempts to dismiss the myth as either an allegorical invention by late antique Neoplatonic authors who were interested in alchemy or a projection of the Christian concept of original sin onto ancient Greece by nineteenth-century scholars. Yet in 2002, Alberto Bernabé offered a thorough re-analysis of the sources, showing that the myth was present already in the fifth century bce and was central to Bacchic mysteries from an early period.

Other materials enhance our understanding of the doctrines and practices that lay behind the Gold Tablets, including numerous passages in ancient literary texts and small bone tablets from sixth or fifth century bce Olbia (a city on the Black Sea), which are inscribed with the words "life-death-life" and "Dio [nysoi(?)] Orphikoi." Also important is a mid-fourth-century bce funerary vase from Apulia in southern Italy, discussed by Johnston and McNiven, which shows Dionysos shaking hands with Hades, Lord of the Dead, while Persephone and other mythological characters look on; this can be interpreted as illustrating the promises made to those buried with the Gold Tablets.


Bernabé, Alberto. "La toile de Pénélope: a-t-il existé un mythe orphique dur Dionysos et les Titans?" Revue de l'histoire des religions 219, no. 4 (2002): 401433.

Bernabé, Alberto, and Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal. Instrucciones para el más allá: Las laminillas órficas de oro. Madrid, 2001.

Graf, Fritz. "Dionysian and Orphic Eschatology." In Masks of Dionysus, edited by Thomas Carpenter and Christopher Faraone. Ithaca, N.Y., 1993.

Johnston, Sarah Iles, and T. J. McNiven. "Dionysos and the Underworld in Toledo." Museum Helveticum 53 (1996): 2536.

Zuntz, Gunther. Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia. Oxford, 1971.

Sarah Iles Johnston (2005)