Six Orphic Amulets (2017) 33′

for vocal sextet/choir (SSATBarB) and Saxophone quartet

Text: Greek mythology

Commissioned by Nordic Voices and NoXaS Saxophone Quartet with support from Arts Council Norway.

First performed June 2, 2018 in Bergen at Bergen International Festival by Nordic Voices and NoXaS Saxophone Quartet


Six Orphic Amulets uses texts from the Orphic Gold Tablets, thirty-five small pieces of gold foil that have been found in graves scattered throughout ancient Greece and Rome. The tablets are inscribed with texts in ancient Greek that vary in length from one word to sixteen lines of poetry. The longer texts provide instructions and information to guide the soul of the deceased as it makes its way through the underworld, and to ensure that it receives preferential treatment from the rulers there.

The first movement uses text from a gold tablet found in the ancient city of Pherae, Greece. It is dated to the middle of the fourth century BC. The strange word andrikepaidothyrson does not have any significant meaning. It contains both the ancient Greek word for man and child, but the whole word also recalls Erikepaios, an enigmatic name of the primordial god from the rhapsodic theogony of Orpheus.

The text in the second movement is not derived from any gold tablets, but rather from three tiny bone tablets found in Olbia. They are dated to the fifth century BC and contain pairs of antonyms; life/death, peace/war, truth/lie and body/soul. The sentence “I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven” (third movement) is a formula found in several of the gold tablets. It is thought to be a password the deceased should respond with when asked who she is by the guardians of the spring of Mnemosyne (memory).

The golden plate of Thurii contains a stream of seemingly nonsense words and syllables, but hidden inside is several names of ancient Greek gods. Movement four uses the nonsense words, movement five includes an incantation of the godly names.

The last movement, Chaconne: The lake of Mnemosyne, is an instruction on how to behave when arriving the underworld. Only parts of the text are preserved. The initiate is encouraged not to drink from the streams of Lethe (forgetfulness), but rather to drink from the lake of Mnemosyne (memory).

A warm thank you to Stian Sundell Torjussen, whose dissertation Metamorphoses of Myth – A study of the “Orphic” Gold Tablets and the Derveni Papyrus I have studied during the process of composing this piece, and who was also kind enough to let me use his English translations.