The Derveni papyrus is an ancient Greek papyrus scroll which was found in 1962. It is a philosophical treatise that is an allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem, a theogony concerning the birth of the gods, produced in the circle of the philosopher Anaxagoras, in the second half of the fifth century B.C., making it "the most important new piece of evidence about Greek philosophy and religion to come to light since the Renaissance" (Janko 2005). It dates to around 340 B.C., during the reign of Philip II of Macedon, making it Europe's oldest surviving manuscript.[1][2] It was finally published in 2006.


The scroll was found at a site in Derveni, Macedonia northern Greece, in a nobleman's grave in a necropolis that was part of a rich cemetery belonging to the ancient city of Lete. It is the oldest surviving book in the Western tradition and one of very few surviving papyri found in Greece. [1] The scroll is carbonized from the pyre of the nobleman's grave.

The papyrus is kept in the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum.


The text is a commentary on a hexameter poem ascribed to Orpheus. Fragments of the poem are quoted. The poem begins with the words "Close the doors, you uninitiated", a famous admonition to secrecy, recounted by Plato. The theogony described in the poem has Night give birth to Heaven (Uranus), who becomes the first king. Cronus follows and takes the kingship from Uranus, but he is succeeded by Zeus.

Zeus, having heard oracles from his father goes to the sanctuary of Night, who tells him "all the oracles which afterwards he was to put into effect." Upon hearing them, Zeus swallowed the phallus [of the king Uranus] who first had ejaculated the brilliance of heaven.[3]

Recent reading

The text was not officially published for forty-four years after its discovery (though three partial editions were published). According to the publisher A. L. Pierris, Kyriakos Tsantanoglou, professor emeritus of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki delayed its publication. A team of experts was assembled in autumn of 2005 led by A. L. Pierris of the Institute for Philosophical studies, Dirk Obbink, director of the Oxyrhynchus papyrus project at the University of Oxford, with the help of modern multispectral imaging techniques by Roger Macfarlane and Gene Ware of Brigham Young University to attempt a better approach to the edition of a difficult text. Meanwhile, the papyrus has at last been published by scholars from Thessaloniki (Tsantsanoglou et al., below), in an edition which lacks an apparatus criticus to record the contributions of various scholars but at least provides a complete text of the papyrus based on autopsy of the fragments, with photographs and translation, after so long a wait. More work clearly remains to be done (see Janko 2006, below).


  1. ^ a b Ancient scroll may yield religious secrets. The Associated Press. Retrieved on 2006-06-01.
  2. ^ THE PAPYRUS OF DERVENI. Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Retrieved on 2006-06-01.
  3. ^ Bowersock, G. W. Tangled Roots. From The New Republic Online 8 June 2005. Retrieved 6 June 2006.

Further reading

See also Derveni krater

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