Complete Gold Leaves by Edward Jenner.
Dunedin: Percutio (2016).
Reviewed by Enrica Sciarrino.
In 1843 a small gold leaf bearing 13 lines of text was handed over to the British Museum by a private collector who declared that the piece had been found in Petelia, Southern Italy. Dated to the middle of the fourth century BC, the text instructs readers on what to do and where to go when reaching the Underworld. Since then, a number of comparable gold leaves have emerged in Southern Italy, Rome and Greece.
In the most recent issue of Percutio, Vol.10 (2016) edited by William Direen, classicist and poet Edward Jenner transcribes and translates from the ancient Greek the text of 16 of these leaves. The introduction provides the basic tools for distinguishing scholarly interventions from the surviving texts, while the absence of interpretative remarks and commentary enables readers to focus solely on what is on the page. Jenner’s editorial choices and his translations testify to his knowledge of the material and his abilities to manipulate language. His rendering of formulae and repetitions give substance to the world invoked in the leaves and the aspirations of those who inscribed them: thirsty souls hoping for salvation, chthonic deities, supplications, initiatory processes and Underworld topographies.
The Underworld takes centre-stage in the essay that follows. In “The Journeys of the Dead from Malakula and the Small Islands and their relevance to Aeneid VI” Jenner compares myths about the afterlife from the Vanuatu Archipelago with analogous materials from the classical tradition (including Sumerian/Babylonian material). The similarities in imagery are striking, and these have intrigued anthropologists since the studies of John Layard and Bernard Deacon in the 1930s and 1940s. Jenner rejects the validity of diffusionist theories (first proposed by William Perry and Elliot Smith in the early 20th century), and rightly so. In turn, he suggests that the cave, the guardian, the labyrinth, the wand and the ferryman are symbolic patterns that take different shape according to the social and cultural context. Jenner inevitably invokes Carl Jung’s definition of archetypes as universal models that live in the human unconscious. Jungian thinking may seem rather old-fashioned these days, but its recognition of what makes us human, regardless of localised differences, remains tantalising.
Professor Enrica Sciarrino is a senior lecturer in Classics at the University of Canterbury.
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