The writing of this post has been delayed a bit, but I’m excited to share more specific details about the Orphic Gold Tablets. Chapter One of Instructions for the Netherworld: The Orphic Gold Tablets, by Bernabé and San Cristóbal is entitled “Arrival in the Subterranean World.” In this chapter, the authors concentrate on four of the most relevant inscriptions found which discuss what the soul of the initiate encounters when they first reach the Afterlife.  Although the tablets were discovered in diverse locations, the descriptions are very similar, often matching word for word — obviously a well known part of a widespread tradition.

In this post I will share the contents of these inscriptions and comment on their significance. I will subsequently discuss the importance of the Goddess Mnemosyne, the personification of Memory, who is featured as a major character in the tablets. Apparently, the Orphic tradition believed memory, or specifically the ability to remember certain key concepts, to be essential to one’s journey towards immortality.

Arrival in the Subterranean World

The four main tablets discussed in this chapter (those from Hipponion, Entella, Petelia, and Pharsalus) read very similarly. They start out describing what one sees as soon as he/she enters the realm of the dead. Interestingly, it appears that the initiate who is on his death bed should see these things before he dies, as something of a preview of what will happen, and that he should remember this vision and get it engraved in gold as a type of memory cue for when he actually dies.

Currier and Ives -- Tree of Life, Public Domain Image

Currier and Ives -- "Tree of Life", Public Domain Image

Upon arrival, the soul sees the great palace/mansion of Hades (god of the Underworld). I will quote directly from the English translation of the tablet from Petelia:

You will find, to the left of the mansion of Hades, a fountain, and next to it, a white cypress erect. You must not approach this fountain, not even a little! But on the other side, from the lake of Mnemosyne, you will find water flowing fresh.

And very nearby there are some guardians. Say: “I am the son of Earth and starry Heaven, but my race is heavenly: know this you too. I am dry with thirst and dying. Give me quickly then water from that which flows fresh from the lake of Mnemosyne”. And they will give you water to drink from the sacred fountain and afterwards you will reign with the other heroes.

This is the work of Mnemosyne. When a hero is on the point of dying, let him recall and get this graved on gold, lest the murk cover him and lead him down in dread (pp. 10-11, originally formatting altered here, emphasis mine).

The opening description is striking and strangely reminiscent of Lehi’s dream in 1 Nephi 8, in which he sees a large field, a great and spacious building, a river and fountain, and a great white tree. When Nephi is granted the same vision, he provides some further details:

16 And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of afilthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the briver of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of chell (1 Ne. 12:16-17)

And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the atree which my father had seen; and the bbeauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the cwhiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow (1 Ne. 11:8).

And it came to pass that I beheld that the arod of iron, which my father had seen, was the bword of God, which cled to the fountain of dliving waters, or to the etree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God (1 Ne. 11:25).

treeoflife snowflake

Although the descriptions are very brief in the Orphic tablets, and differ somewhat one from the other, it appears to be safe to say that they describe two fountains/rivers/lakes. One was to the left of the white tree while the other was to the right (called the “fountain of eternal flow” and sometimes described as being right next to the tree). Apparently, the arriving soul is warned not to drink from the one on the left, but is then encouraged to persuade the guardians to give them to drink from the one on the right. The spring on the left is likely to be identified with the Spring of Lethe (forgetfulness), and the one on the right is the Spring of Mnemosyne (memory). The soul should desire to drink of the flowing waters of memory, which leads to life1. In the Greek tradition, forgetfulness is linked to sin and death, whereas remembering is linked to life and immortality (this basic idea is also common in Book of Mormon thought).

Perhaps, as in 1 Nephi, the Orphic tradition conceived of a filthy river or fountain (in both the tablets and in 1 Nephi, the two words are used interchangeably), and also a fountain of clean or living (meaning flowing) water alongside the white cypress. Scholars have called the Orphic tree the “Tree of Life”2. The focus in the 1 Nephi vision is on the tree and partaking of its fruit. However, the focus in the tablets is on drinking from the living waters. Interestingly, the Nephi account makes eating from the tree and drinking from the waters equivalent (in Egyptian texts, the water often comes from the tree, sometimes by the had of a goddess located inside it).  The tablets specify that drinking from the fountain of memory starts the soul on the “sacred way” that the other initiates have gone which leads to glory, immortality and the right to “reign with the other heroes.” On the other hand, the tablets agree in giving a stern warning not to drink from the first fountain. It is interesting to note that the oldest of the tablets found (from 400 BC) nearly dates to the time of Lehi.


There are many other interesting ideas in this introduction to the journey of the Afterlife. The presence of preliminary guardians (there are others who follow) who ask questions and demand a particular answer is noteworthy. These beings are mentioned in many traditions — for example, in the Genesis story of the Cherubim who guard the way to the Tree of Life.  In the Orphic tablets, they are to be told that although the soul is a son/daughter of the Earth, he is also born of Heaven and is of the celestial race. The Entella tablet, although the last lines are hard to decipher, seems to say that the guardians, after receiving this response, will consult with the Goddess Persephone (queen of the dead), and then either give or require certain passwords. This encounter with these first guardians is not the end of the journey, but only the beginning.

The Essential Role of Memory

The tablets take care to mention that they are “the work of Mnemosyne.” As previously mentioned, the Goddess Mnemosyne is the personification of Memory. Mnemosyne was a daughter of Uranus, wife to Zeus, and mother of the Muses (the inspiration of the poets). The text of the tablets was the work of Mnemosyne because they were something to be remembered. This is one of the reasons the inscriptions are in verse — to facilitate its memorization (p. 15). The responsibility of the Muses was to help poets remember their poetry. The authors of Instructions to the Netherworld expand on the role of Memory:

The goddess takes care that the initiate recalls what he must do, and the instructions that have been revealed to him while alive (probably in the course of initiation), thus becoming the protectress of souls and the guide of his journey (p. 15).

One of the main purposes for seeking the waters of Memory, then, is for those who have been initiated into the mysteries while alive to be able to remember the details of those rituals when they die and have to use them practically in the Afterlife. The authors explain further:

What is hoped for from Mnemosyne is that she may make the initiates remember the ritual, probably that of initiation. At an elementary level, one has recourse to Mnemosyne in order to prevent an unexpected lapse of memory in a moment that is crucial for the initiate: that is, when he presents himself before the guardians and confronts their obligatory interrogation (p. 16).

Beyond this, the authors suggest that some Greek philosophers consider memory as “an instrument of salvation.” While tied by them to the concept of reincarnation, this concept is quite enlightening. The Greeks believed that if you drank from the river Lethe/Forgetfulness, you would forget your previous life and be forced to live another lifetime without progressing. However, if you could remember the lessons learned in your previous live(s) (i.e, because you drank from the fountain of Memory), you could move on to immortality and glory. Those who forget the mistakes of the past will not progress. With the memory of his previous faults, the soul can bring the cycle of destiny to a close and, by paying the price for his injustices, be liberated from the world and death (p. 17).

In Greek, the very concept of “truth” means, etymologically, the “absence of forgetting.” To remember therefore also means “to know” (p. 17). The authors note: “Whereas Forgetfulness is the water of death, because no one can approach the realm of shadows without having lost memory and consciousness, Memory, by contrast, is the fount of immortality, since he who conserves the memory of things in Hades transcends the mortal condition” (p. 17). The general path of the soul is to forget/lose consciousness/die — drinking from the waters of life cause one to take the higher path of memory/knowing/life. As Christ taught, “And this is alife beternal, that they might cknow (remember) thee the only true dGod, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast esent” (John 17:3). Perhaps this is why the Scriptures tell us so often to remember — 212 times in the Bible and about 120 times in the Book of Mormon.

While a whole post could be written on the subject of memory and its significance, I want to briefly mention a few items for those interested in this topic. My father, David R. Larsen, is the director of Advanced Memory Dynamics, an educational consulting company, and has extensive resources for those interested in learning how to preserve your brain and improve your memory. To learn more, I highly recommend visiting his website at

David R. Larsen is also the author of a series of books developed to coincide with LDS Gospel Doctrine annual readings on how to remember scripture: How to Remember Everything in the Old Testament, New Testament, Boof of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and Church History. You can go to and enter “How to Remember” in the search window on top for a short review of each volume. These books are full of practical insights for improving memory and also memorizing the scriptures. Also, you can buy any or all of them directly from the author for 20% off the list price. Just e-mail him at:

dads book bom

  1. In his 1982 BYU Studies article, “The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book,” C. Wilfred Griggs analyzes these arguments in greater depth
  2. Griggs, p. 9

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