The Magoi and Daimones in Column vi of the Derveni Papyrus

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Since its discovery in 1962, the Derveni papyrus has been the object of keen scholarly interest. The text consists in the main of an allegorical interpretation of an Orphic poem. The cosmology of the author comes from pre-Socratic physics, in terms of which he casts the Orphic theogony, presumably in order to reveals its truth. The extant text also contains a few badly damaged columns about the afterlife and, seemingly, some rites that facilitate the passage of the soul to the beyond. Here, we find a reference to a rite performed by the magoi that the author compares with the mysteries. Scholars have generally taken the view that these magoi are either Greek religious experts or charlatans. Because of this, scant attention has been paid to the question of possible Iranian background of the rite and the daimones. In this article, I will address this question in reference to relevant Iranian evidence. My conclusion is that, in column 6 of the papyrus, we indeed have an authentic description of a rite rooted in Iranian religious lore, and that behind the magoi’s daimones may well be the ancient Iranian gods, the daēvas.

The Magoi and Daimones in Column vi of the Derveni Papyrus

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See Bernabé 2010:78 n. 4. Herodotus regularly uses the term magos to refer to a Persian ritual expert in his famous description of Persian sacrifice in Hist. 1.131–132. The magoi are interpreters of dreams e.g. in Hist. 1.128 and killers of xrafstar animals in Hist. 1.140. Throughout the late archaic classical and Hellenistic periods the term magos retained its original (Persian) reference although it increasingly developed a (derived) pejorative sense perhaps rooted as much in national enmity as in philosophical culture. In Oedipus Tyrannus (425–385 b.c.e.) Oedipus accuses Creon of enlisting the services of Teiresias for his plot against the king calling the seer a magos and agyrtēs. The latter term refers to the mendicant purifier and magos apparently has a negative connotation a mantic “who has sight only when it comes to profit.” For Sophocles the word magos is clearly associated with the “seer” and more specifically with the “second sight” however grudgingly conceded. Diogenes Laertius (Proem. 8) conveys an important observation which is according to him from Aristotle in a book called Magicus and by Dinon in his History: the magoi were “wholly unacquainted” with “the art of magic (tēn goētikēn mageian).” The work attributed to Aristotle is in fact a dialogue by an unknown Hellenistic writer. For the status of the magos in the Classical period see Graf 1997:29. The clarification shows that competent observers knew that despite outward similarities between the practices of the magos and the “magician” which were important enough to warrant derivation of the latter’s name from the former the ritual lore of the magos pursued different aims or at least were not limited to those of the magician. In the First Alcibiades (122a) the “mageia of Zoroaster” is defined (in part) as theon therapeia (the worship of the gods). Cicero writing in the first century b.c.e. had to clarify that the magi were the official priests of Persia a body of “wise men and scholars among the Persians” (De div. i 46.91) and had nothing to do with “magic” which he seems to equate more or less with the binding spell. The “magi” interpreted dreams and initiated the kings into their art. For Cicero’s view of magic see Graf 1997:58–59. This picture of the Persian priest goes back to Herodotus and is found in Plato too who mentions the magoi’s role in the succession story of Darius (Rep. 572e). Dio Chrysostom in Oratio 36.41 asserts that the Persians call “magi (magous)” those “who know how to cultivate the divine power not like the Greeks who in their ignorance use the term to denote wizards (goētas).” The magoi were priests. Their religious status was in part based on the claim already found in Herodotus that the gods only listened to their words. They mediated between men and the gods making the former’s requests heard by the latter. The belief in the exclusive efficacy of their incantation is also found in Diogenes Laertius (Proem. 6). Ferrari (2011:78–80) maintains that the word magoi in the Derveni text refers to Iranian priests.


See for instance Graf and Johnston 2007:146.


See Marcovich 1967:465–467 and my discussion of fragment dk 15 further in the text. Cf. Morgan 2000:57–60.


Cf. Papatheophanes 1985:154–158.


Cf. Burkert 2007:117: “That Empedocles met with magi is intrinsically plausible even if no fragment of his can be found to prove it.” See also Kingsley 1995:185–200.


See West 1983:78–379 and Janko 2001:2–6. Ferrari (2011:77–78) places the small fragment I 24 at the upper right corner of the text to get “libations and sacrifices win the favor of the artades” for the opening line of the column. But this creates formidable problems. See n. 35 below.


On the pre-Socratics see Guthrie 1962:62–7183–106 132–139; 1965:294–317 362–381; 1994; and Betegh 2004:278–324. Laks (1997:126–132) emphasizes the role of Heraclitus whose importance for the Derveni author according to Laks was relating pre-Socratic physics to eschatology.


The translation is from de Jong 1997:117–118with slight emendations.; see his comments. Cf. Cantera 2012:226.


See Gantz 1993:123–135.


Cf. Kouremenos et al. 2006:147: “The demons in question are the Erinyes . . . here probably conceived of as souls of certain dead and equated with the Eumenides . . . or chthonic deities in general.”


See most recently Kellens 2011:74–7999–103 119–120. For Kellens the “combat antidémoniaque” is directed in the yasna service at the protection of the material world. The combat is the principal role of Sraoša in the rite. But the martial aspect “échappe au réseau des sources gâthiques probablement parce que les Gâthâs sont moins obsédées par les démons” (slips through the net of the Gāthic sources probably because the Gāthās are less obsessed by the demons) (Kellens 2011:76). If “obsession” means importance one has to disagree with his assessment of the status of the daēvas in the Gāthās.


See Kellens 1996; 1998; 2011:55–61; and Cantera 2009.


See Ahmadi 2013.


See Most 1997:126; Betegh 2004:87–88; and Kouremenos et al. 2006:129. The idea of daimōn as “divine agent intervening in human affairs” is recurrent throughout ancient Greek history from Homer onwards: in lyric poetry tragedy the historians and orators. See Sfameni Gasparro 1997:71 for references.


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