Introduction to the Orphic Gold Tablets

Orphic Gold Tablet found near Petelia

As I have been promising for some time now, I would now like to introduce you to the Orphic Gold Tablets, a series of small gold tablets/plates that have been discovered in southern Europe buried with the dead and offering to the same instructions regarding what they should do and say when they reach the Afterlife.  I am drawing my information on these finds almost exclusively from a monograph by Alberto Bernabé and Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal entitled Instructions for the Netherworld: The Orphic Gold Tablets (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

As I’ve mentioned previously, I consider these discoveries significant for the LDS audience, as the inscriptions found are on thin plates of gold (similar to Joseph Smith’s description of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is derived) and give specific instructions for what the initiate is to do during their journey into the  Afterlife, including meeting a number of guardians and gods who will ask them questions and to whom they must give certain passwords.

orphicBefore I get into a more detailed description of the nature and content of these tablets, I would like to give a brief explanation of what “Orphic” refers to.  The label “Orphic” is here referring to the Orphic mystery cult/religion popular in the ancient Greek and Thracian world.  The mystery religions involved initiation into secret rites (including the performance of sacred dramas) that presented the initiate with hidden knowledge pertaining to the afterlife and the gods. Often there was a promise of immortality resulting from initiation into the cult. The mystery cults were very widespread, being found in various cultures and times. Although there were others, including the Eleusinian and Mithric, the Orphic cult followed the literature of the mythical poet Orpheus, who was believed to have gone down to the Underworld and then came back from the dead.  For a slightly more detailed treatment of the mystery religions, please see this post that I wrote on them a while back (also, Wikipedia actually has a decent description here.)



The authors of Instructions for the Netherworld deem these gold plates very important for our understanding of Greek religion (and, I would say, most any ancient religion), “since they give us direct access to the most ancient stages of Orphic religion and literature, and present a very significant panorama of the rituals and beliefs of this religous group, which exerted a powerful influence on other Greek authors and thinkers: some Pre-Socratic philosophers, lyric poets like Pindar, Plato, and then the Neoplatonists” (p. 1).

Description of the Tablets

The authors describe the artifacts as:

[A] series of gold tablets of very small dimension (they vary between 8 and 4 cm. wide and 3 to 1 cm. long).  The use of gold no doubt corresponds to the search for a material intended to be noble and long-lasting, useful for avoiding malign influences and a symbol of the durability of the life that the deceased hoped for… The writing that appears on them is minuscle in size…In addition, the gold surface, thin and shiny, has tended to curl up and form wrinkles, which are sometimes hard to distinguish from letters. All this makes their reading and interpretation extaordinarily difficult (p. 2).

Petelia tablet

On the manner and place of their finding, the authors explain:

They are found in graves, but the limited number of graves that have yielded documents of this type, compared to the thousands that have been excavated, indicates that the users of the tablets were a minority group, with a certain unity of beliefs, probably initiates, or followers of a religious movement which…we must now, without hesitation, call “Orphic”, and convinced that a special destiny was reserved for them in the beyond.

They have come to light only in a few places, and differ widely in date, with almost six hundred years between the oldest, …c. 400 B.C., and the most recent, …datable to 260 A.D. The majority of them, however, date from between the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. (p. 2).

The distance in time between the oldest and the most recent discoveries (700 years) indicates that this tradition was very persistent, perpetuating a system of beliefs and traditions over a very long period of time.  Also, the geographic area covered by the findings is quite large, stretching from Macedonia to the Greek islands and up to Rome.  Oddly, none have appeared in Attica, a fact the authors try to explain as possibly due to the strong influence of the rival Eleusinian mysteries, which do not appear to have used this type of text (p. 4).

On a final note regarding the description of the tablets:

In some cases, the tablets appear in open form, in others folded. In the former case, they were placed in the hand of the deceased; in the latter, they could be placed on the deceased’s chest or in his mouth…

Either way, the inscriptions were buried with the person so that they could have access to these important instructions when their soul reached the Netherworld.

An Overview of Their Contents

The gold plates contain brief texts written mainly in verse, although some prose is present as well. The prose sections often involve “mystical formulas, passwords, or other phrases of a ritual character,” which the authors note are especially difficult to interpret, as they are symbolic and could have multiple meanings (this point made me think of some of the issues that arise in the interpretation of the Joseph Smith papyri) (p. 5).

As for their content, the authors give the following brief summary:

In general, they contain references to the other world: either indications about its “geography”, greetings to the infernal gods, wishes that the soul of the deceased may find happiness in the Beyond, or else suggestions for help in finding it. They often include elements of dialogue, and the people who used them quite clearly hoped to obtain a special position in the other world, not so much thanks to the tablets themselves (although a gold object always possessed a certain value as a talisman or as a marker of identity), but because through them they are reminded what to do or say (p. 5).

While the inscriptions vary (although some are very similar and even identical), they tend to follow certain themes that can be structured as a pattern. The rest of the authors’ book is set up following these themes. They note:

We will structure these groups following what we might call the soul’s transition toward the other world, since most of the tablets refer to various stages of its journey (p. 6).


The stages of this journey, as outlined in this work (pp. 6-7), are:

  • The soul’s arrival in the world of the dead.
  • What it must do to confront the trials which face it there, including the question of the guardians that watch over the fountain of Memory.
  • The guardians’ questions and the answers that must be given.
  • The “ritual of the dead”, including the soul being addressed by someone, congratulating him because his death is a new birth, and declaring that he will share the happy destiny of the other initiates.
  • The soul being guided in its path by a series of instructions.
  • Arriving to present itself before the goddess Persephone and, in its request to be received by her, referring to a large number of questions related to Orphic ritual and belief.
  • Giving of the passwords necessary for reaching “the meadow of the blessed” and the declaring that soul is worthy because it has been initiated in the several mysteries.
  • The greetings to certain gods and the initiate’s identification with them (indicating that the initiate “belongs” to the god).
  • The soul’s ultimate destiny.

I know that this list leaves us wanting in terms of specific details, but those details will be provided, as far as they can be from the book, in future posts. For now, I hope this brief treatment of the Orphic Gold Tablets is sufficient to interest you in this topic and demonstrate how useful these discoveries can be, both to the student of ancient religions as well as to the participants in modern practices of a similar nature.  The discovery of these inscriptions gives us, of course, yet another fine example of the use of gold tablets/plates to preserve important religious texts in ancient times.

Gold Scroll found in Austria inscribed with the Shema in Greek

Gold Scroll found in Austria inscribed with the Shema in Greek

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