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Memory and Performance: Strategies of Identity in the Orphic-Bacchic Lamellae

  • Author(s): McClay, Mark Frederick
  • Advisor(s): Griffith, Mark
  • et al.
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This dissertation is a treatment of the Orphic-Bacchic lamellae, a collection of small gold tablets that were deposited in the graves of Dionysiac mystery initiates, mostly during the 4th/3rd c. BCE. So far, thirty-eight of these have been discovered, from various sites in Sicily, Magna Graecia, Northern Greece, Crete, and the Peloponnese. The tablets were deposited in the graves of both men and women, and they are inscribed with short poetic texts, mostly in hexameters, that offer promises of postmortem happiness. Scholarship on these objects has traditionally focused on the sacral and eschatological language of the texts and their underlying doctrinal structure. Past interpretations, and discussions of “Orphism” more generally, have relied on propositional definitions of “religion” that are centered on belief and on the scriptural authority of sacred texts rather than ritual or sensory experience. Following recent critiques of these models in general (and of their application to Orphic phenomena in particular), I consider the gold leaves in their social context as objects produced, handled, and disseminated by ritual performers. Far from constituting a “proto-Protestant” tendency toward personal faith and salvation within Greek religion as many scholars have assumed, the Orphic-Bacchic cults of the Late Classical period can be understood as a collective performance genre that interacted and competed with other familiar cultural practices in its management of memory, gender, and social identity.

The first chapter addresses the theme of memory in the gold leaves. Several of the tablets relate the soul’s journey to obtain a drink from the chthonic water of memory (mnêmosynê), and others reference themselves as objects of memory or emphasize the initiate’s need to remember instructions at the moment of death. In contrast with past interpretations (notably the work of Jean-Pierre Vernant), which have explained Memory in the lamellae as a specifically Orphic-Pythagorean divinity connected with release from a cycle of rebirths, I argue that the vocabulary of memory signals a range of complex connections with Greek poetry and religion. Focusing particularly on two recently discovered tablets and analyzing them alongside a range of literary parallels, I argue that cognitive, affective/pathogenic, and objective (social) conceptions of memory all played a complex role in Bacchic mystery experience. Drawing comparisons with Hesiod, Sappho, and Pindar, I argue that private mysteries drew on existing themes of poetic memory to articulate an idea of mystical immortality. References to mnêmosynê in the tablets serve two functions: first, to connect the deceased with an ideal cult community; and second, to situate him/her in a temporal dynamic whereby immortality is linked both with past ritual experience and with an idealized future community in the Underworld. Finally, I suggest that the gold leaves themselves can be interpreted in modern theoretical terms as an expression of “collective memory” in the context of mortuary practice.

The second chapter develops an analogy between the social functions of the lamellae and Late Classical epitaphs. Drawing on recent studies of inscribed epigrams by Joseph Day and Christos Tsagalis, I argue that the lamellae envision the initiate’s exceptional postmortem status in ways that are stylistically comparable to conventional funeral epigraphy. The initiates’ declarations of purity (katharos, euagês), blessedness (olbios), mystic identity (mystai kai bakkhoi), and lineage (genos) in the lamellae echo rhetorical strategies of funerary epigrams and speeches (epitaphios logos), which assure postmortem preservation by establishing a bond with an abiding social structure and identifying the deceased with a special community of exceptional dead (andres agathoi, olbioi). Of special importance is the formula taphos anti gamou (“tomb instead of marriage”) that appears on graves of young women from the Archaic and Classical periods, reflecting the language of ritual lament. This expression is analogous, I argue, to the antitheses that appear in the lamellae (theos anti brotoio, theos ex anthrôpou). Lamellae and epigrams use similar linguistic strategies to portray their own ritual group – whether the polis, oikos, or a community of mystai – as capable of successfully managing the process of “exchange” by which the deceased attains immortality.

The final chapter turns from the comparative inquiries of the first two chapters to examine the gold leaves more closely in their own performance context. In particular, I consider the lamellae against the background of ritual hexameters or incantations (epôidai), a submerged Greek verse genre in which the power of the voice interacted especially closely with material objects. The corpus of Late Classical inscribed epôidai that have come to light in S. Italy, Sicily, and Crete (including the recently published “Getty Hexameters”) suggest that the gold leaves belong to a more prevalent (but hitherto largely unrecognized) tradition of writing employed to capture the effect of oral performance in a tangible medium that emerged and developed through the interaction of oral practices and local epigraphic habits. Oral and written hexameters also served as devices of self-presentation for ritual experts, including the itinerant Orphic initiators who presided over Bacchic cults. I suggest that the vocal and material aspects of the gold leaves both contributed to the authority of these ritual craftsmen.

Throughout this dissertation run two overarching arguments: first, that the lamellae represent a response to threats against personal identity for their owners; and second, that their cults are both social and communal in their self-conception. While continuing to reject discredited ideas of Orphic and Dionysiac “communities” constructed in 19th-c. scholarship, I argue that the gold leaves articulated an ideology of mystic community that was central for cultic participants. The communal character of the gold leaves and their cults offered participants new possibilities of self-presentation and new opportunities for the creative re-imagining of personal identity.

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This item is under embargo until March 29, 2023.