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Comptes rendus et notices bibliographiques

The Bacchic Gold Tablets and Poetic Tradition: Memory and Performance

Hanne Eisenfeld
p. 262-263
Référence(s) :

Mark McClay, The Bacchic Gold Tablets and Poetic Tradition: Memory and Performance, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2023. 1 vol. 23,5 × 16 cm, xiv+210 p. ISBN : 978-1-108-83378-3.

Texte intégral

1In his wide-ranging book, Mark McClay contends that earlier scholarship on the “Orphic-Bacchic” gold leaves has focused too much on their specific religious contexts. He argues, in contrast, that the leaves should be interpreted within the contexts of Greek poetry: its values, communities, and performance. Poetry is defined expansively, including material from Homer to epitaphs to curse tablets. This approach counters the position that the leaves express values systematically opposed to those of poetry, especially in their treatment of memory, and suggests that poetic performance offers models for how the leaves’ purveyors presented their own authority.

2The introductory chapter, “Bacchic Verses: Poetry and the Gold Leaves”, briefly lays out the evidence for the relevance of Bacchic cult to the leaves as well as the more vexed problem of Orphism and what we mean by it. Here, McClay surveys several facets of the debate: the Zagreus tradition, the question of craft vs. sect, the role of poetic performance, and the relevance of bricolage. Through these lenses, he describes different aspects of a single “centrifugal turn” in scholarship: that is, a movement away from essentializing “Orphism” and toward understanding it as a range of “Orphic-Bacchic cult phenomena in local contexts” (p. 6). With reference to each facet, he demonstrates how lenses more commonly applied to poetic phenomena will be of use in understanding the leaves as well. There are times when some greater clarity in definitions would be helpful, especially when dealing with terms like ‘cult’, ‘private initiation’, and ‘mystic community’—all important to understanding the social reality behind the leaves, a goal which is expressed in the introduction but remains elusive throughout the book. The adjective ‘traditional’ is also often left vague, as when memory is said to signify “the tablets’ engagement with traditional poetic language, themes, and ideologies” (p. 23). On the whole, though, the introduction makes a persuasive case for interpreting the leaves within broader performative practices of the worlds that created them. An appendix of frequently referenced leaves (text and translations) rounds out the introduction.

3In Chapter 1, “Mapping Memory: Bacchic Cults and Poetic Models”, epic and lyric poetry are adduced as definitive frameworks for interpreting memory in the leaves, contrasted with models that see memory as primarily a feature of a specific eschatology. A didactic memory recognizable from epic is discerned in the phrase “hero remembering” (μεμνήμενος ἥρως) and shown to rework the advice-giving of epic into a (re)-creation of performed ritual. The mention of “famed initiates and Bacchants” (μύσται καὶ Βάχχοικλεινοί) is taken as a starting point to consider the use of poetic remembrance as a guarantor of poetic immortality in Sappho and Theognis and to show that the leaves extend a related promise. Chapter 2, “The Tomb of Memory: Epigrams and Funerary Context,” shows that epitaphs are useful comparanda for the leaves because they too draw on poetic tradition in order to create and extend a communicative situation and to reorient the deceased. A discussion of Attic tombstones and their transfer of the control of memory to the family group offers a useful comparison for how the leaves reorient their holders to a new and privileged afterlife community.

4Chapter 3, “Material Genres: Amulets and Incantations”, uses the lens of material religion to make the invigorating argument that the leaves as material objects should be understood as outgrowths of existing ritual technologies, including inscribed incantations and curse tablets. McClay revisits the history of the debate as to whether the leaves are amulets and shows how this question is tied up with the leaves’ status as magical or religious phenomena and how this binary framing has limited appreciation of their performative complexity. In the final body chapter, “Gold in the Grave: The Metal of the Tablets”, McClay interrogates the gold metal of the tablets, mining it for its mythical, ritual, and economic significance. Most innovative and successful is the economic strand, which argues that the leaves are caught up in the increasingly ambiguous meanings of gold—elite exchange? part of the monetized economy?—and make choices that orient them to traditional elite values, framed in poetic themes.

5This book offers provocative invitations to reconsider our understanding of the leaves. Sometimes the new perspectives gained are clearly expressed ; sometimes the accumulation of comparisons raises intriguing possibilities, but stops short of demonstrating how they should affect our interpretations. As a whole, the work offers a rich and diverse smorgasbord of comparanda and theoretical lenses that cumulatively make a persuasive case for approaching the leaves as part of Greek poetic culture, broadly defined, and especially for thinking about the many modes of performance that framed the way the leaves were advertised, created, and consumed. This book will be most accessible to those who already have some knowledge of the gold leaves, but it will be of interest to scholars working on many aspects of Greek religion, poetry, and performance cultures.

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Référence papier

Hanne Eisenfeld, « The Bacchic Gold Tablets and Poetic Tradition: Memory and Performance »Kernos, 36 | 2023, 262-263.

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Hanne Eisenfeld, « The Bacchic Gold Tablets and Poetic Tradition: Memory and Performance »Kernos [En ligne], 36 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Hanne Eisenfeld

Boston College

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