Two pages of lost ancient text the “Orphic Rhapsodies” found in Sinai palimpsest

I learned today via the Austrian Academy of Sciences (@oeaw) of a very exciting discovery indeed at the monastery of Mount Sinai in Egypt.  There is a rather good article about it at the OEAW site here, with photographs.

A previously lost Greek classical text in hexameters has been found in a palimpsest, as the under-text on two sheets.   The material is about the childhood of the god Dionysus.  The discoverer believes that it is a portion of the Sacred Discourses in 24 Rhapsodies.

This work will be familiar to few.  The Hieroi Logoi was a compilation of Orphic poems known in late antiquity.  It gave a theogony: an account of the origin of the gods, especially Dionysus.  The neo-platonist Damascius is the first to mention these ῥαψῳδίαι Ὀρφικαί in his work De principiis 123, where he describes the book as συνήθης Ὀρφική θεολογία, i.e. “the standard orphic theogony” (Job) or “the current [form of] the Orphic theology” (Ahbel-Rappe).[1]  The work is hard to date.  It has been dated to the Hellenistic period (2nd c. BC – 1st c. AD), which seems to be the mainstream opinion.  But it has also been dated to the 4-5th c. AD, on the basis that the myth of the dismemberment of Dionysus was then added to existing Orphic material under the influence of Christian theology.[2]

The work was previously known entirely from quotations in later writers, either neo-Platonist or Christian.  These were collected and published by Otto Kern as Orphicorum fragmenta, Berlin (1922) (online here).  James R. Van Kollenburg has a neopagan website,, and usefully he has gathered or provided English translations of many of the fragments here.

The new discovery gives for the first time a substantial chunk of the original text.

The ancient manuscript of the Hieroi Logoi from which these sheets come was written in Egypt in the 5-6th century AD.  But in the 10th century it was recycled, the pages erased and turned into blank parchment.  A text of more use to the owners, an Arabic text of the lives of the Palestinian saints, was written on the pages at the monastery of Mar Saba.  (I have not seen any information on which text precisely this is).  The new volume was originally some 300 pages.  It migrated to Sinai, where it was reduced to fragments by the removal of leaves, sold to European libraries.  The remains now have the shelfmark Ms. Sin. ar. NF 66.  The relevant leaves are f. 2v + frg. 7v + frg. 8r, and presumably their reverse.

There is an obvious question here.  Do other pages of the Hieroi Logoi also exist, under the text of the other leaves of the Arabic volume, now in European libraries?  Does anybody know which leaves are where?  Is anybody going to shine a multi-spectral imaging scanner on them?

After all, if the monks got a pile of blank parchment from breaking up the old book, it is possible that more than two sheets got used to make the Arabic manuscript.

Returning to the discovery: here is an image from the OEAW site of part of the palimpsest, taken under multi-spectral imaging:

Multi-spectral imaging photo with false colour, showing the Arabic over-text and (in red) the Greek undertext of the Orphic Rhapsodies. Via the OEAW site.

The discovery has been published, although I have not seen the article: Giulia Rossetto, “Fragments from the Orphic Rhapsodies? Hitherto Unknown Hexameters in the Palimpsest Sin. ar. NF 66”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 219 (2021), 34-60.  Dr Rossetto has an page here, which gives the following summary:

The palimpsest manuscript Sin. ar. NF 66 is one of the treasures of the Monastery of Saint Catherine located in the Sinai Peninsula. Nowadays it consists of a few fragmentary parchment sheets, but originally it was a larger codex of ca. 300 folia. Some of these leaves have been purloined from the Sinai and are now kept in Cambridge, Leipzig, and Saint Petersburg, while others have been lost. The codex contained the Lives of Palestinian monastic Saints in Arabic translation and was copied at the Monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem in the first quarter of the 10th century. It was later brought, under unknown circumstances, to the Sinai. All preserved folia are palimpsests, with scriptiones inferiores in Greek and Christian Palestinian Aramaic. This article focuses on one of the Greek erased texts – a previously unknown classical text in hexameters of mythological content – and offers its editio princeps. Based on an analysis of codicological and palaeographical features, combined with that of linguistic and stylistic elements, it will be suggested that the Sinai hexameters might originate from the Hieroi Logoi in 24 Rhapsodies, i.e. the longest lost Orphic poem we know of.

The find is part of the Sinai Palimpsests project (website here).  Let us hope they make many more splendid discoveries!

  1. [1]An English translation exists: Sara Ahbel-Rappe, Damascius’ Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, Oxford University Press (2010) ISBN: 978-0-19-515029-2.  This description is found on p.415, chapter 123.1.
  2. [2]Most of this information I take from Marek Job, “The rule of Dionysus in the light of the Orphic theogony (Hieroi Logoi in 24 Rhapsodies)”, in: Filip Doroszewski, Dariusz Karłowicz (eds), Dionysus and Politics: Constructing Authority in the Graeco-Roman World, London (2021), chapter 10, p. 161-176.

6 thoughts on “Two pages of lost ancient text the “Orphic Rhapsodies” found in Sinai palimpsest

  1. Great article, but it is not true that the story of the dismemberment of Dionysos was added in the Christian era. For instance, Philodemus, who died around 35 BCE, mentions it (Orphic Fragment 36). There is reference to the Toys of Dionysos in the Gurob Papyrus (3rd century BCE, Orphic Fragment 31); the toys make no sense without the dismemberment. The early Christians understood the similarity between the myth of Dionysos and the death of Jesus, and they tried to explain it away by saying that the devil created the story before Jesus was born to trick people, but more sane Christian authors, such as Clement of Alexandria, were well aware of the myths and did not deny that they existed pre-Christianity, but they attacked these stories in other ways. But there are no scholars I am aware of who deny that the story of the dismemberment is pre-Christian; actually, it is likely very, very much older than the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

  2. Thank you for this – I must go back and look at that article then. (Which early Christian authors discussing Dionysus do you refer to here?)

  3. I summarised the material from Marek Job, “The rule of Dionysus in the light of the Orphic theogony (Hieroi Logoi in 24 Rhapsodies)”, in: Filip Doroszewski, Dariusz Karłowicz (eds), Dionysus and Politics: Constructing Authority in the Graeco-Roman World, London (2021), chapter 10, p. 161-176. On p.171 we read:

    Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the myth about the fate of Dionysus, culminating in his dismemberment by the Titans, existed at least as early as Hellenistic times. There is no proof of it being part of any theogony before the Hieroi Logoi in 24 Rhapsodies, however. Introducing the idea of Dionysus’ kingdom seems to be an original idea of the author or the compiler of the Rhapsodies. Perhaps Lech Trzcionkowski is right when he argues that the collection is a late creation (fourth or fifth century AD) and that the myth of Dionysus’ dismemberment, expanded with additional content, was added to the original Orphic theogony as known from the Derveni papyrus under the influence of Christian theology.37

    37 Trzcionkowski 2013, 124: ‘Possibly, during the redaction process, the codex gained its most important innovation – the myth about the death of an innocent victim, Dionysus, was combined with the story of the origins of humanity, probably under the influence of Christian theology’.

    (=Trzcionkowski, L. (2013) Bios–Thanatos–Bios. Semifory orfickie z Olbii i kultura polis. Warszawa, Sub Lupa.)

    I can have no view on this, since I know very little about the early forms of the myth of Dionysus, But I would be very wary of “parallels” claims in general.

  4. There’s debate about the specific part of the story where humanity is created out of the ashes of the Titans who ate Dionysus. This story may be a later creation. Dionysus being torn apart by the Titans and being brought back to life is pre-Christian though. He was known as a savior deity that gave his followers eternal life after they died.

    See: Tracing Orpheus: Studies of Orphic Fragments(De Gruyter, 2011), [p.64]:

    “According to Philodemus, the god’s “third birth” occured when Rhea put him together again after he had been killed and dismembered by the Titans. This is the earliest known attestation of Dionysos’ sparagmos, reconstitution, and rebirth; it is ultimately derived from the discussion of Dionysos and his epithets in Apollodoros, On the Gods, as are the immediate parallels in Diodoros and Cornutus.17 In a later section of Piet. that deals with divine wounds and deformations, the reference to Dionysos’ dismemberment by the Titans is repeated almost verbatim, without mention of rebirth …:

    ‘Some (report) that Dionysos too [came back to life] after his dismemberment by the Titans when his limbs were reassembled and his wounds [healed] by Rhea.’


    As has been pointed out by Alberto Bernabe and others, the revived Dionysos who died and came back to life again was regarded as a divine role model for the Dionysac initiates and their expectations of a happy afterlife…

    27. OF 463; Bernabé (2008b: 438–440); Henrichs (2010a: 100–101).


    The god aids the mystes in his transit between life and death, between the human and the divine, to transmute her into a god by means of his action of salvation and liberation: “blessed and fortunate, you will become a god, from the mortal that you were”.[13]

    13. Thurii tablet OF 488.9: Bernabe – Jimenez San Cristobal (2001: 136).

    [I have slightly expanded and linked the quotes – RP]

  5. Thank you for this material from this interesting volume on the Orphic fragments. I thought it best to expand the comment with some page numbers and links, and make the quote a little longer at points. How interesting to see some material from the Herculaneum rolls – Philodemus, De Pietate!

    One claim of your own: “He was known as a savior deity that gave his followers eternal life after they died” – what is this based on?

    In general this takes us into a larger area than I want to deal with here, tho.

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