No Comment, Quotation — December 5, 2010, 8:44 am

The Hipponion Text

gabriel_dante_rosetti_mnemosyne

?????????? ???? ????? ???? ?? ???????? ????????
??? ????? ????? ??????? ??? ??? ?(?)??? ????? ????
??? ? ????? ??????? ????? ??????????
???? ???????????? ????? ?????? ???????? ?? ?
?????? ??? ?????? ???? ?????? ??????? ??????
??????? ?? h???????? ??? ?????????? ??? ??????
?????? ???? ??????? ??????? ?? ????????? ????
???? ?? ?? ?????????? ?? ????? ????????????
??? ?? ????????? ????? ?????? ??????????
????? ??? ??? ??? ??? ????? ???????????
????? ? ?? ???? ??? ????????? ??? ??? ???[?]
?????? ???? ?vac?????? ??? ?????????? ??? ???????
??? ?? ??? ???????? ??????????? ???????
??? ?? ??? ?????? ???? ??? ?????????? ??? ??????
??? ?? ??? ?? ????? h???? ????? h?? ?? ??? ?????
?????? ??? ?????? h????? ???????? ??????? ??

This is sacred to Memory: when you are about to die, you will find yourself at the House of Hades; on the right there is a spring, by which stands a white cypress. Descending there, the souls of the dead seek refreshment. Do not even approach this spring; beyond you will find from the Pool of Memory cool water flowing; there are guards before it, who will ask you with cool penetration, what you seek from the shades of murky Hades. Say: “I am a son of earth and star-filled Heaven, I am dry with thirst and dying; but give me swiftly cool water flowing from the Pool of Memory.” And they will take pity on you by the will of the Queen of the Underworld, and they will give you water to drink from the Pool of Memory; and moreover, you will go on the great Sacred Way along with the other famed initiates and baccants make their way.

–Text on a Gold Foil found in Hipponion (ca. 400 BCE)

laminetta_orfica_hipponion

In the early years of the last century, archaeologists sifting through the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Hipponion (located in the modern Italian province of Calabria, then in Magna Graecia) came across a remarkable find. Nestled inside of a stone chest they found a two-inch wide piece of gold foil onto which a text had been pressed with a stylus using a form of Greek that could be safely dated (as the foil and chest were) to about 400 BCE. The text has been the subject of a good bit of subsequent scholarship; it has been patiently deciphered and discussed and its purpose has been the subject of a good deal of speculation. In the years that followed, scholars noted that this script was similar to a few similar inscriptions, some on gold foil, other on papyrus, and they noted echoes of this text in classical literature–from the Odyssey to lyric verse to Platonic dialogues. The text, composed in an alliterative hexameter, obviously has a religious context. It can be tied to a Dionysian or Orphic cult which was clearly well established in the Greek world of that time, a cult which had a strong focus on the afterlife and which promised its initiates the path (the “Sacred Way”) to a new and better life after death.

The Greeks of antiquity did not have particularly clear notions of an afterlife, though it figures in a number of religious and philosophical writings. Hades was the realm of the dead, and it certainly was not a happy place–though those who inhabited it apparently had little sense of who they had been in their former lives. An exception existed for a heroic elite who were invited to the Elysian Fields, a bucolic site of soft green fields and groves lit with a purple light.

The Hipponion text and related artifacts appear to be passports into the afterworld, or perhaps more precisely a set of instructions to initiates about what to do after death. A dead person would pass by a certain familiar white cypress tree on the way to Hades, it suggested. He would have a great thirst and would be presented a fateful choice of water to drink. He would drink either of the water of memory (??????????) and find his way to Elysium, or he would drink the waters first offered, those of forgetfulness or oblivion (????) and pass on to Hades. The text is designed to help the initiate find his way to memory, and thus to Elysium. It suggests there are obstacles on the way, including guards, and that specific formulas must be uttered to gain access to the water of memory. All of this can be understood simply in terms of an ancient, now extinguished religious rite, as has been convincingly explored in Hugh Bowden’s new book, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World.

But the literature and philosophical writings of antiquity, particularly passages of Pindar, the lyric poetry of Hesiod and the final pages of Plato’s Republic suggest that these texts were laden with broader meanings. They present us with the image of Mnemosyne, the sacred aspect of memory. But Mnemosyne, whose waters are key to this text, is not precisely memory in a conventional sense–rather it is a special consciousness of prior human experience which guides heroic acts and inspires the vision of poets, endowing their deeds and writing with a special human truth. A life worth living, and a life worthy of reward with an afterlife, is one that requires the inspiration of memory, and also constant examination and reconsideration of prior acts. A hero lives for the present, but he remains keenly aware of the past and exercises critical judgment about it. That was the essential path to the Elysian Fields. The alternative was oblivion, forgetfulness and failure, the fate of those who lead lives unexamined, paying no heed to their own past.


Listen to a performance of the opening chorus of Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982), based on the Hopi word meaning “life out of balance”:

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2016

Innocents

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quiet Car

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Psychedelic Trap

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hamilton Cult

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Held Back

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Division Street

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Hamilton Cult·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The past is complicated, and explaining it is not just a trick, but a gamble."
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell
Article
Division Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Perfectly sane people lose access to housing every day, though the resultant ordeal may undermine some of that sanity, as it might yours and mine."
Photograph © Robert Gumpert
Article
Held Back·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"'We don’t know where the money went!' a woman cried out. 'They looted it! They stole our money!'"
Artwork by Mischelle Moy
Article
The Quiet Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Flor Arely Sánchez had been in bed with a fever and pains throughout her body for three days when a July thunderstorm broke over the mountainside. She got nervous when bolts of light flashed in the sky. Lightning strikes the San Julián region of western El Salvador several times a year, and her neighbors fear storms more than they fear the march of diseases — first dengue, then chikungunya, now Zika. Flor worried about a lot of things, since she was pregnant.

Late in the afternoon, when the pains had somewhat eased, Flor thought she might go to a dammed-up bit of the river near her house to bathe. She is thirty-five and has lived in the same place all her life, where wrinkled hills are planted with corn, beans, and fruit trees. She took a towel and soap and walked out into the rain. Halfway to the river, the pains returned and overcame her. The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion.

Photograph by Joshua Lutz
Article
Innocents·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion."
Photograph © Nadia Shira Cohen

Average duration of a Japanese prime minister’s tenure since August 1993, in months:

16

Brain shrinkage has no effect on cognition.

An Indianapolis fertility doctor was accused of using his own sperm to artificially inseminate patients, and a Delaware man pleaded guilty to fatally stabbing his former psychiatrist.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today