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, hellenicgods.org, 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 Academia.edu 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!

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  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.

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