Today in Literary History – January 15, 1962 – The Derveni Papyrus, the oldest book in Europe is discovered

The Derveni Papyrus, “The Most Ancient Book in Europe” according to UNESCO, was discovered on January 15, 1962 in Derveni, Greece. The partially burned papyrus was found in a burial tomb during excavations for a new highway from Thessalonika to Kavala.

Derveni-Papyrus

The papyrus was found in the tomb’s funeral pyre and the bottom part of the papyrus was badly charred. When the papyrus was unrolled it broke into about 200 fragments. The fragments were reassembled, but the lines on the bottom of the columns of text were burned away.

The papyrus has been dated from between 350 to 320 BCE, although the text may have been copied from an earlier work by an unknown author.

After some delays the text of the papyrus was translated and published. Its themes are philosophical and religious. Harvard University’s Center for Hellenistic Studies says:

“The content is divided between religious instructions on sacrifices to gods and souls, and allegorical commentary on a theogonical poem ascribed to Orpheus. The author’s outlook is philosophical, displaying, in particular, a physical system close to those of Anaxagoras, the Atomists, and Diogenes of Apollonia. His allegorical method of interpretation is especially interesting, frequently reminiscent of Socrates’ playful mental and etymological acrobatics as seen in Plato’s Cratylus.”

Richard Janko, a classics professor and leading researcher on the Derveni papyrus believes that the text shows that “Ancient Athens was in the grips of a culture war between science and religion.” He believes that the author is warning readers against the illogic of the Cult of Orpheus.

janko-at-work-bell
Prof. Richard Janko

Janko argues that the writer criticizes the cult’s followers for blindly trusting that mere ritual will bring knowledge and mocks their failure to evaluate the cult’s claims rationally. The author, Janko explains, says that the acolytes are “gullible and waste their money…because they accept the priest’s explanation and do not enquire further into what they have heard.”

Janko also wonders who was buried in the tomb with this seemingly blasphemous book. We may never know.

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