From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Derveni papyrus is an ancient Greek papyrus scroll that 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 5th century BC, 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 BC, during the reign of Philip II of Macedon, making it Europe's oldest surviving manuscript. 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 manuscript in the Western tradition and one of very few surviving papyri found in Greece. The scroll is carbonized from the pyre of the nobleman's grave. The papyrus is kept in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.
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 Nyx (Night) give birth to Heaven (Uranus), who becomes the first king. Cronus follows and takes the kingship from Uranus, but he is likewise 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."
The text was not officially published for forty-four years after its discovery (though three partial editions were published). A team of experts was assembled in autumn 2005 led by A. L. Pierris of the Institute for Philosophical studies and 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 been published by scholars from Thessaloniki (Tsantsanoglou et al., below), which provides a complete text of the papyrus based on autopsy of the fragments, with photographs and translation. More work clearly remains to be done (see Janko 2006, below).