A Grad student on the road…
The early morning mist from the Pineios river fogs the windows of my car as I head to the Diachronic Museum of Larissa. The road outside the city follows the misty riverbank and, after a boiling Greek summer, I welcome the autumnal chill. I take the first exit at the roundabout and drive in neutral as I search for the museum. As I am engulfed by the tall trees nourished by the Pineios, the museum gradually comes into view. It is perched on top the steep hill of the mostly flat Thessalian terrain and fills me with an eagerness to get to work. It is my first stop on my tour of the places where the worshippers of the Orphic Dionysos were buried, and my excitement is difficult to contain.
My daily view…
I am a fourth year PhD student at the Classics Department of the University of Toronto. This means that I am in the process of finishing up with exams and coursework and starting the research for my PhD dissertation. This is a transitional phase, as many well know, and thus one often finds oneself tackling multiple battlefronts at once. But without a doubt, my time in Greece as the Neda and Franz Leipen Fellow is my favourite battlefront yet. Navigating the permit process, making travel arrangements, and working with a diverse cast of Ephorate and Museum personnel can feel overwhelming for a novice such as myself; and yet I cannot help but feel endlessly charmed (in the very best way) by the realities of my chosen profession. Not least of which is the very fact that I am able to study objects from Greek Antiquity.
Orphic Tablets housed in the Museum in Rethymno. Hellenistic era Crete.
The tombs that I have chosen to study for my dissertation are the ones which yielded the objects known as the Orphic Gold Tablets. The Orphic tablets are thin sheets of gold, inscribed or uninscribed, found on the lips, chests, or hands of the deceased. These objects hint at a layer of the worship of Dionysos that goes beyond what we know from the Hesiodic and Homeric corpora. In the Orphic/Bacchic tradition, Dionysos is the second incarnation of the god Zagreus, the son of Zeus and Persephone, who was torn to pieces by the Titans and consumed by them. Zagreus was destined to be Zeus’ successor to the cosmic throne before he was dismembered as an infant. His heart was salvaged and reincarnated as the half-mortal son of Zeus and Semele and as Dionysos his story dictates that he must ascend Olympus and become a fully-fledged god.
A statue depicting a young Dionysos. Roman copy of a 4th c. BCE piece. Larissa Diachronic Museum.
This version of his story differs slightly from the wine god of celebration or the orgiastic god of the mountains we know him to be from other types of evidence. The Orphic tablets much like the Derveni Papyrus hint at an often overlooked or little understood aspect of the reality of Ancient Greek religion that goes beyond the polis-centred model. The Orphic/Bacchic cult reveals that Ancient Greek religion was significantly more complex than previously thought. With its message of the initiate’s freedom from life on earth, their acquisition of Dionysos’ own epithet bakkhos, and their access to the Elysium Fields, the Orphic/Bacchic cult points to a different layer of Ancient Greek religion that is revealed to be something more than communal sacrificing and dining on specific feast days. The Orphic tablets, both as texts and objects, reveal many things about how the Ancient Greeks worshipped their gods in a tradition without dogma.
A glimpse of the Underworld, or a beach in Rethymno? It’s anyone’s guess…
One feature of these objects stands out; that is, the map of Hades which they provide. Some tablets refer to the landscape of the Underworld and tell the deceased where to go, from which body of water to drink, and what landmarks to search for so as not to get lost in the murky darkness of Hades. For some it is the spring of Memory next to the white cypress tree that is the correct body of water to drink from, while for others it is the Lake of Memory. Some tablets contain the password to be uttered to the guardians of the Waters of Memory while others inform the deceased of what to say to Persephone herself to be granted access to the Elysium Fields. But what about the meta-map they provide? What about the findspots of such assemblages containing the tablets, and how are they linked to one another through space and time? These are some of the questions which guide my research. Much like these deceased worshippers of the Orphic Dionysos, I too must navigate the administrative realities of the academic field of Archaeology to perform my analysis.
Old town street in Rethymno, Crete.
Under the auspices of the University of Toronto’s Archaeology Centre and the Canadian Institute in Greece, I can now travel around Greece and Italy and work at the Museums which house the Orphic tablets and the rest of the objects of the tomb assemblages. Misty Larissa was my first stop while I just recently returned from windy and wintry Rethymno, Crete. Navigating the winding, maze-like streets of the medieval old town was a feat in and of itself, much like navigating Hades. With great help from the Archaeologists posted in Rethymno I was able to conduct my research and enrich my understanding of the Hellenistic and Cretan aspects of this Orphic/Bacchic cult. Seeing as the cult spans throughout antiquity and the Greek speaking world, that is from the late Archaic all the way to the Roman Imperial era and from Asia Minor to Magna Grecia, each tomb assemblage is unique and at the same time unified. It is at once peculiarly Orphic/Bacchic and conspicuously normal in its temporal and spatial context. In Larissa the female deceased was buried with the cremated remains of her child, wearing her jewelry while her baby’s feeder was close at hand. In Rethymno the deceased initiates were buried with their sea-shell drinking vessels and some perfume bottles, while in the South of Italy, in Calabria, the deceased follower of the Orphic Dionysos himself was worshipped post-mortem at the site of his burial. The Orphic tombs vary from one another, yet they all have a gold tablet indicating that the deceased adhered to one unified tradition. What kind of religious movement allowed for such diversity? And how does it change our understanding of Ancient Greek religion in general? These two questions lie at the heart of my research.
Beer glasses galore! Only at the Red Lion Pub.
To answer them, the CIG has greatly aided me by bringing me to Larissa and Rethymno, and will then take me to Thessaloniki, Volos, and Vibo Valentia among other places. I am lucky and beyond grateful to the CIG for giving me the opportunity to track down these Orphic/Bacchic initiates and grill them with the real questions, all the while being able to work in the country in which I spent my formative years as a perennially perplexed teenager. But in the meantime, much like my deceased initiates, we too worship the wine god albeit on Tuesday nights at the Red Lion Pub.
2021-2022 Neda and Franz Leipen Fellow, CIG