The sacred zigzag

Speaking of the Bacchic Orphic bone tablets from Olbia, Nicola Mureddu sums up the different scholarly interpretations of the zigzag and other symbols found interspersed among the enigmatic phrases inscribed on them in his Truth carved on Bones – Studying the mythological and cultic meaning of the Orphic Bone Plaques of the Black Sea

The zigzag has however been interpreted in many different ways: Rusyaeva had initially thought to see a letter sigma in it, standing for Zagreus, another incarnation of the Orphic Dionysus. But she soon realized that at the time of its carving that letter was identical with the Phoenician zayin shaped as an I. West interprets it as both a snake, a well known symbol of rebirth, and a lightning bolt, the divine power which both generated Dionysus and killed Orpheus. Bilde offers a more imaginative solution: according to her the zigzag may be the symbol of a key, a divine key that only a god possesses, as indicated by Pausanias’ description: “What is called Hades has been locked up by Plouton.” So if the zigzag is Plouton’s key, it symbolizes the mastering of life and death. The A can be the initial of another name, but West’s vision of a stylized boukranion symbolizing then a horned figure is remarkable. The second plaque shows a symbol similar to a ship, a ship of which the sail resembles, as noticed by Rusyaeva, a disguised A. The third has again a drawing, this time of a horse; again Rusyaeva sees hidden in its mane a letter A, this time no names are written beside the figure. The fourth plaque carries again Greek words, once more expressed by opposites: Eirene, Polemos and Aletheia, Pseudos, again signed Dion accompanied by the usual A. This plaque has an inscribed verso; it shows the zigzag figure in a more detailed manner, another similar figure and a rectangular field divided into seven compartments in which oval figures are placed at different heights. The zigzag here is read as a combination of I, A and X, an abbreviation for Iakchos. In the seven compartments Rusyaeva recognizes the seven parts into which Dionysus was dismembered according to one of the myths. West on the other hand comments that such a schematic design had way too many possible interpretations among which he envisages a cultic offer of eggs or a musical instrument.

4 thoughts on “The sacred zigzag

  1. I did a double-take when scrolling down through my reader posts when I saw Nicola’s name in the preview of your blog post. He’s my cousin, and I read his dissertation before he published it ( I helped him proofread it).


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