A Translation of the Derveni Papyrus
…each one…of the [?Eri]nyes…
…Erinyes…of the Erinyes…they honour…are so[uls]…funeral libations in droplets…brings honour…for each something birdlike…fitted to the music…
…daimon becomes to each…destroyed utterly…the daimones beneath…receive…and are called assistants of the gods…(they) are, like unjust men…and they are responsible…such as…initiate
who (?alters) what lays… to give rather than that harms (verb) … for […] does not allow to obtain (?it) from chance. Is it not on account of these that the cosmos possesses order? In the same way, Heraclitus… the common… overturns what is private; he who speaking as someone telling holy discourses said:
The sun … according to nature is a human foot in width, not transgressing its boundaries. If … oversteps, the Erinyes, the guardians of Justice, will find it out.
… would make a transgression… of justice…
… terrors … consult an oracle… they consult an oracle… for them we go into the oracular shrine to inquire for oracular answers, whether it is right… the terrors of Hades, why do they disbelieve? Not understanding dreams, nor any of the facts, on the basis of what kind of warning would they believe? Overcome by fault and by pleasure as well, they neither learn, nor believe. Disbelief and lack of understanding [? are the same thing]. For if they neither understand, nor do they learn, [it is not possible that they believe] even when they see… disbelief… appears…
… prayers and sacrifices appease the souls, and the enchanting song of the magi is able to remove the daimones when they impede. Impeding daimones are avenging souls. This is why the magi perform the sacrifice, as if they were paying a penalty. On the offerings they pour water and milk, from which they make the libations, too. They sacrifice innumerable and many-knobbed cakes, because the souls, too, are innumerable. Initiates make the preliminary sacrifice to the Eumenides, in the same way as the magi. For the Eumenides are souls. On account of these, he who is going to sacrifice to the gods, first birdlike… and the… (they) are… as many as…
… hymn saying sound and lawful things. For … by his poetry. For it is not possible to state what way the words are used and at the same time the text itself His poetry is something strange and riddling for people. But Orpheus did not intend to tell them captious riddles, but momentous things in riddles. Indeed, he is telling a holy discourse from the first and up to his last word. As he also makes clear in the well-chosen verse: for having ordered them to put doors to their ears he says that he is [? not legislating] for the many… [? but only for] those pure in hearing… according… in the next verse …
…has been made clear in this verse:
Who were born from Zeus the mighty king
And how he (sc. Zeus) begins, he makes clear in this:
And when Zeus took from his father the prophesied rule
And the strength in his hands and the glorious daimon
They ignore the fact that these words are transposed. They are to be taken as follows: ‘Zeus when he took the strength from his father and the glorious daimon.’ Since this is so he (sc. Orpheus) does not maintain that Zeus hears [from his father] but that he takes the strength [from him]. If it is taken the other way, [it would seem] that he [took it] contrary to the divine decrees… for seems to this… might be believed necessary… and knowing…
being. He made the strength to belong to the strongest, just as a son belongs to the father. Those who do not understand the meaning of the things said think that Zeus takes the strength and the daimon from his father. Now, knowing that fire, [in as much as] it is mixed with the others, agitates the things that are and hinders them from getting set together because of fomenting, he removed it to an adequate distance, so that once it is removed, it does not hinder the things that are from coagulating. For whatever is kindled is dominated (sc. by fire), and when dominated, it mixes with the other things. But (as to the expression) that ‘he took in his hand,’ he gave a riddling meaning just like the other […] knows firmest […] strong, he said that Zeus […] the daimon … just as … . strong.
… and to say. For it is not possible to say without uttering; and he (sc. Orpheus) considered ‘to say’ and ‘to utter’ to be the same; and ‘to say’ and ‘to teach’ mean the same (or: have the same power): for it is not possible to teach without saying whatever is taught through discourses. Teaching is considered to reside in saying. Accordingly, ‘to teach’ was not distinguished from ‘to say’ on the one hand, and ‘to say’ from ‘to utter’ on the other, but ‘to utter’, ‘to say’ and ‘to teach’ mean the same. Thus nothing prevents ‘all-pronouncing’ and ‘teaching all things’ from being the same thing.
By saying that she is ‘nurse’, he (sc. Orpheus) expresses in riddling form mat whatever the sun dissolves by heating, the night unites by cooling… those things which the sun heated…
… of Night. He says that she proclaims the oracle out of the innermost shrine (e)c a)|[du/toi]o), his view being that the depth of the night is ‘never setting’ (a1duton); for it does not set (du&nei) as the light does, but the sunlight overtakes it as it remains stationary. Now, ‘furnish/proclaim oracles’ (xrh~sai) and ‘assist’ mean the same. But one has to examine to what ‘assist’ and ‘furnish/proclaim oracles’ apply (as a name).
In the belief that this god proclaims oracles, they come inquiring what mey should do. After this he says:
[? She] proclaimed an oracle about all that was right to him to hear.
… he made clear that… the things that are…
… and to take away (sc. his rule). And the next line goes like this:
so that he may rule on the lovely abode of snowcapped Olympus
Olympus and time are the same. Those who think that Olympus and the heaven are the same are entirely mistaken, for they do not know that the heaven cannot be longer rather than wider; but if someone were to call time long, he would not be wrong at all. And whenever he (sc. Orpheus) wanted to speak about heaven, he added the epithet ‘wide,’ whereas whenever (he wanted to talk) about Olympus, on the contrary, he never (added the epithet) ‘wide’, but ‘long.’ By saying that it is ‘snow-capped’, the power… snowy… snowy… white… bright… grey… and …
Zeus when he heard the prophecies from his father
For neither did he hear this time– but it has been made clear in what sense he heard– nor does Night command (this time). But he makes this clear by saying as follows:
He swallowed the phallus of […], who sprang from the aither first.
Since in his whole poetry he speaks about facts enigmatically, one has to speak about each word in turn. Seeing that people consider that generation is dependent upon the genitalia, and that without the genitals there is no becoming, he used this (word), likening the sun to a phallus. For without the sun the things that are could not have become such … things that are … the sun everything …
[?he made] to leap the brightest and hottest having separated it from himself. He says that this Kronos was born from the sun to the earth because he became the cause through the sun that they were struck against each other. For this reason he says: ‘(He) who did a great deed.’ And after this:
Ouranos son of Night, who first of all ruled
Naming Mind that strikes (? the beings) against each other Kronos, he says that it did a great deed to Ouranos; for (he says that) he (sc. Ouranos) was deprived of his kingdom. He named Kronos himself from his action and the others too according to the same principle. For of all the things that are … nature… that he got deprived of his kingdom… the things that are…
… striking them against each other and, if he made the [su]n separate, (the result is that) the things which are stood apart from one another. For as the sun got separated and encircled, he coagulated and held fast both the things that are above and those which are below the sun. And in the next verse,
From him in turn Kronos, and then wise Zeus
he says that there has been this rule since he has been the king. But his rule gets the explanation that it is by striking the things that are against each other that he separated them into their current reconfiguration, not different (?ones) from different ones, but […]. And the (expression) ‘and then wise Zeus’ makes it clear that (it is) not another one, but the same one. He indicates this:
Holding wisdom and royal honour over the blessed gods
It has been made dear above [that] he called the sun a phallus. Since the beings that are now come to be from the already subsistent he says:
[with?] the phallus of the first-born king, onto which all
The immortals grew (or: clung fast), blessed gods and goddesses
And rivers and lovely springs and everything else
That had been born then; and he himself became solitary.
In these (verses) he indicates that the beings always subsisted, and the beings that are now come to be from (or: out of) subsisting things. And as to (the phrase): ‘and he himself became solitary’, by saying this, he makes dear that the Mind itself, being alone, is worth everything, as if the others were nothing. For it would not be possible for the subsisting things to be such without the Mind. And in the following verse after this he said that the Mind is worth everything:
Now he is king of all and will always be
… Mind and …
… it existed before it was named. Then it was named. For air existed even before the things that are now were set together and always will exist. For it was not born, but existed. And the reason why air received its name has been made clear above. But it was thought that it was born, because it got the name Zeus, just as if it did not exist previously. And he said that this will be ‘the last’, because it was named Zeus, and it will continue to be his name until the things that are now have got set together into the same form in which they were floating as they were before. And it is clear that they became such because of this, and having come to be, they are all in it… he indicates in the following words:
Zeus the head, Zeus the middle, and from Zeus all things have their being
Head… expressed in a riddling form… head… beginning (or: rule) comes about… setting together…
… and those moving downwards. But speaking about […] he means that the [? earth] and all the other things are in the air, it being breath. Now Orpheus named this breath Moira. But all other men according to the common usage say that Moira spun for them and that those things which the Moira has spun will be, on the one hand speaking correctly, but on the other hand not knowing either what Moira is or what spinning is. For Orpheus called wisdom Moira. This seemed to him to be the most suitable out of the names that all men have given. For before Zeus received his name, Moira was the wisdom of the god always and through everything. But since Zeus received his name, they think that he was born, even though he existed even before, but was not named. For this reason he says ‘Zeus was born first’, as he was first… then… men [? not understand]ing what is said (ta_ lego&mena) … Zeus…
… existing things have been called each single name by reason of what dominates (them); all things were called Zeus according to the same principle. For the air dominates all as far as it wishes. And when they say that the Moira spun they say that the wisdom of Zeus ordains how the things that are and the things that come to be and the things that are going to be must come to be and be and cease. And he likens him to a king (for this seemed to him the most fitting of all the names that are said) saying as follows:
Zeus the king, Zeus who rules all with the bright bolt
He said that he is king because many… one rule prevails and accomplishes all … no one… to accomplish… ruler… is ruled (or: starts) …
… those men who, while performing the rites in the cities, have seen the holy things, I wonder less that they do not have knowledge. For it is not possible to hear and at the same time to understand (or: learn) what is being said (ta_ lego&mena). But all those who (hope to acquire knowledge?) from someone who makes craft of the holy rites deserve to be wondered at and pitied. Wondered at because, thinking that they will know before they perform the rites, they go away after having performed them before they have attained knowledge, without even asking further questions, as though they knew anything of what they have seen or heard or learned; and pitied because it is not enough for them to have spent their money in advance, but they also go off deprived even of their judgement. Hoping before performing the holy rites that they will attain knowledge, they go away after having performed them deprived of hope too. … by his own… mother … sister …
… nor the cold to the cold. By saying ‘by mating’, he (sc. Orpheus) makes dear that divided up into small (pieces) they were moving and mating in the air, and as they were mating, they all got put together with each other. They were mating until each came to its like. Aphrodite Ourania, and Zeus, and to aphrodise, and to mate, and Peitho, and Harmonia are given as name to the same god. A man mingling with a woman is said by common usage to aphrodise. For (this reason) as the things that are now got mixed with one another, (this god) has got the name Aphrodite. (It has got the name) Peitho, because the beings yielded to one another; and to yield and to persuade is the same. (It has got the name) Harmonia, because many of the beings got fitted to one another. For they existed even before, but were spoken of as ‘being born’ since they were separated out… to be separated out makes dear that… ruled so that they got separated out…
So he (sc. Orpheus) named all things in the same way as finely as he could, knowing the nature of men, that not all of them have a similar nature nor do all want the same things. When they have the power, they say anything that occurs to each one’s heart, whatever they happen to want, never the same things, through greed (or: arrogance), sometimes also through lack of understanding. Earth (Ge), Mother (Meter), Rhea and Hera is the same (or: are one and the same). She/it was called Earth (Ge) by convention; Mother, because all things are born from her (or: from this one). Ge and Gaia according to each one’s dialect. And (she/it) was called Demeter as the Mother Earth (Ge Meter), one name from the two; for it was the same.
And it is said in the Hymns too: ‘Demeter Rhea Ge Meter Hestia Deio’. For (she/it) is also called Deio because she/it was torn (or: ravaged: e)dhiw&qh) in the mixing/sexual intercourse. He will make it clear when, according to the verses, she is born… And (she/it) is called Rhea because many and… animals were born… from her. Rhea and…
This verse has been made misleading and it is unclear to the many, but to those who understand correctly it is clear that Okeanos is the air and air is Zeus. It is not the case that another Zeus contrived Zeus, but that the same one (contrived) for himself great strength. But those who do not understand think that Okeanos is a river because he (sc. Orpheus) added the epithet ‘broadly flowing’. But he indicates his meaning in current and customary expressions. For they say that the very powerful among men ‘flowed great’. And the next verse:
he placed in it the sinews of the silver-eddying Achelous
He does [not give] the name Achelous to water. [? The meaning of the phrase] that he placed in the sinews is that the … appears in … each …
… are equal measured from the centre, but those which are not round-shaped cannot be of equal limbs. This (verse) makes it dear:
which shines for many articulate-speaking humans on the boundless earth.
Someone might think that this verse is said wrongly, namely that when she is at her utmost, the things that are show up more than before she is at her utmost. But he does not mean this (by saying that) she shows, for if he had meant this, he would not have said that she shows for many, but that for all at the same time, both for those who work the land, and for those who sail when they have to sail, and for the former the seasons. For if there were no moon, people could not have discovered the counting either of the seasons, or of the winds… and all the others…
… and brightness. Those things out of which the moon is (composed) are the whitest of all, divided according to the same principle (or: measure), but they are not hot. And there are other things now in the air, floating far away from each other. But during the day they are invisible being dominated by the sun, whereas during the night it is visible that they exist. They are dominated because of their smallness. Each of them floats in necessity, so that they do not come together with one another; for otherwise all those which have the same characteristics as those out of which the sun was set together would come together in one mass. If the god had not wished that the things which are now should exist, he would not have made the sun. But he made it of such a sort and of such a size as is explained in the beginning of the account. Those (words) which come after these he puts before (as a screen) not wishing all men to understand. In this verse he indicates:
But once [? the heart] of Zeus devised all deeds
… ‘[of?] mother’ because the Mind is the mother of the others; and ‘of his own (e(a~c)’ because she is good. He makes clear in these verses too that it means good:
Hermes Diaktoros son of Maia, giver of goods (e)a&|wn).
He makes it clear in these as well:
For two urns are placed on Zeus’ threshold,
Of gifts such as they give: of evils, and the other one of goods (e)a&|wn)
Those who do not understand the term think that it is ‘[of?] his own mother’. But if he had wished to show the god wishing to mingle in love of his own (e(autou~) mother, it would have been possible for him by altering some letters to say of his own (e(oi=o) mother. For thus it would have become his own (e(autou), and he would be her son… her… clear that… both … good…