Sunday, June 17, 2018

Words of Gold

In the early 19th-century, in Petelia in southern Italy, a small cylinder-shaped amulet was unearthed together with its gold chain. When the amulet was opened it was found to contain a tiny rolled-up plate of pure gold which, when flattened out, was no larger in size than a matchbox (above, shown approximately twice size). On the plate was inscribed a text, which turned out to be the oldest known text which we have, and one of the very few to survive, of the Orphic mysteries of Ancient Greece. 

We know so very little about these ancient mystery schools. The initiates guarded their secrets well, and we must guess what most of their teachings were about. The Petelia Tablet, as it has become known, lifts a small corner of the veil with which time has covered these teachings, but as with the few surviving fragments which we have of the poetry of Sappho, even this small leaf of gold is enough to hint at the intense beauty and poetry of those mysterious teachings.

‘Orphic’ we know comes from the name of the Ancient Greek poet and musician Orpheus, an immensely popular figure in stories of the time, the best-known today of which is the story of his journey to the Underworld in a bid to be reunited with his deceased love Eurydice. To defy Death itself to regain a lost loved one is a powerful theme to which any age can relate, which probably accounts for the enduring fascination of this story. Orpheus also appears in the story of Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. In this story Orpheus takes on the role of Odysseus before him to outwit the Sirens, for when Jason and his crew approach the island of the Sirens, it is Orpheus who takes up his lyre and drowns the Sirens’ alluring song with his enchanting music, allowing the ship to sail safely onwards.

This is the central character of the Orphic mysteries: a character who is both poet, musician and daring adventurer, both in this world and in other unknown realms beyond. Orpheus, like many larger-than-life cultural heroes, exists somewhere between myth and folklore, and his presence apparently was powerful enough to have a mystery school founded in his name. So what does the Petelia Tablet actually tell us? What can we learn from these few brief lines of ancient text rescued from the earth? When translated from its original Ancient Greek, it begins by warning us (that is: the deceased thirsting soul) not to drink from a specific spring in Hades, but instead to seek another to quench our thirst from the Lake of Memory. But, we are warned, the guardians are nearby, and to them we must say:

“I am a child of Earth and the starry Heavens;
But my race is of Heaven alone; and this you know yourselves.
I am parched with thirst and I perish; but give me quickly
refreshing water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.”

The fragmentary text then closes by reassuring us that the guardians of the Underworld will then allow us to drink from this divine spring, after which we may celebrate with the souls of other heroes. More text would have followed, but this is as much as has survived for us to read. Even this much leaves more than enough room for wondering. Are we being told that our soul is originally from Heaven, that the text is describing a mere metaphor? Or more profoundly, is the Petelia Tablet telling us a great secret: that we originally come from the stars? We might be both of Earth and Heaven, but our race – humankind – is originally from Heaven alone. Looked at in this way the text could not be more specific, and all that we can do is ponder these words of gold, and gaze up at the stars and wonder.


  1. I wasn't sure while I was reading this just how it was going to end, or quite what the theme would be. Then I read through to the last paragraph, and just thought, "wow, really??!!" It left me thinking about all those 'supposing it's really true?' possibilities - and also kind of hoping that it is!

    1. You just keep on pondering, David-san, while gazing up at the stars.. and please, never ever stop wondering! ♥