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Golden "passports to the afterlife"

The beauty and mystery of the 'lamellae orphicae' of Ancient Greece

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Lamella Orphica, a gold foil tablet dating from the 4th century BC. Photo: GETTY OPEN CONTENT/ PUBLIC DOMAIN

21 December 2017

It is one of the least known and most mystifying aspects of the Ancient Greeks attitude towards mortality; small pieces of golden foil, engraved with ritual words aimed to safeguard the deceased during their passage to the world of Hades. Found in tombs, these golden tablets, called 'lamellae orphicae' (Orphean tablets) were buried with the deceased, serving as passports by confirming their identity and purity and allowing them to move easily between the mortal and divine realms, protecting them from any evils that might haunt them along the way.

And there were a lot of evils. For the ancient Greeks, the afterlife was a long journey and the Underworld was a complicated place, divided in various areas designed to 'accomodate' the deceased, according to their behaviour during mortal life. The worst resided in Tartarus, a cosmic pit where the gods' enemies, not least among them the Titans, were sent, while the best were expected to spend eternity in the Elysian Fields. Among the heroes of Ancient Greek mythology, none was more associated with the world of Hades than Orpheus, who went to the Underworld and came back alive, hence the name 'lamellae orphicae' given to these tablets by the 19th and early 20th century archaeologists.

Yet, none of the 30 to 40 golden tablets found across the Greek-speaking Mediterranean, mention Orpheus himself. Rather, the texts provided instructions for how to properly behave in paradise and acted as amulets protecting the people with whom they were buried. What's even more remarkable is the fact that these engraved foils vary in length, which led archaeologists to believe that initiates from different classes were followers of Orpheus, as scribes charged by the letter.

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