Orpheus, singing

1 Nymphs finding the head of Orpheus


An ancient Greek poet called Phanokles, of the second century BC, told a story about the death of Orpheus, which was retold later by Virgil. Orpheus had died at the hands of the Maenads, priestesses of Dionysios, who worshipped the god with human sacrifice. They killed and dismembered Orpheus, as Set did Osiris in Egypt, and Orpheus’ head floated down the river Hebros in Thrace, out across the Ocean, and over to the island of Lesbos. All through its journey the head sang the most beautiful songs.

This conceit was used to explain the sudden prominence of Lesbian poets in the seventh century, such as Terpander (fl. 685), Psappho (fl. 600 BC) and Alkaios (fl. 620 BC). These poets were associated with Apollo, the god of music and poetry, at this period one and the same thing and at first a form of invocation of the gods. The first surviving reference to Orpheus is much later than this, in a poem by one of Greece’s greatest poets, Ibykos of Rhegium (south Italy) c 530 BC, a two word fragment which mentions Orpheus’ name; but that’s what happens when 90% of the literature has been lost. Both Orpheus and Terpander are mentioned as innovators of the lyre and in lyric poetry, much as Thespis was for the Athenian drama in honour of Dionysios.

Probably the most famous story about Orpheus is Vergil’s one about how he loved and lost his wife Eurydiké. She died of a snake bite, and Orpheus followed her to Hades where he sang to Persephone the Queen of the Underworld, and obtained permission to bring Eurydiké back to the world of mortals. But there was a condition: he was not to look behind him where Eurydiké followed, on pain of losing her. Back in the mortal world, he did look back. But Eurydiké was still in the world of Hades, and Orpheus could not claim her. She remained subject to death. This is a love story, not a myth, and dates to the first century AD. This story of Orpheus though refers to a much older rite, and in part parallels the mystical story of Demeter and Persephone, who like Eurydiké also could not be free of Hades.

2 Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus was a figure from a much earlier time than the sixth or seventh century BC. Another tale, told by Pindar (fl. 480 BC),  was of his journey to find the Golden Fleece, with Jason and the Argonauts (sailors in the ship Argo). This was a journey that took place about the same time as the Trojan War, in the twelfth century BC. Orpheus counteracted the songs of the Sirens by singing more beautiful songs than they. Although it has happened that the surviving material about Orpheus is late, from the sixth century BC onwards, his story must belong to the early period when Greek tribes were entering what they came to call Hellas, and should be grouped with the tales of Perseus, Theseus, Odysseus and Akhilleus (Achilles). These were all names from a similar language, as the termination -eus indicates. Perhaps these were stories told by the Minyans, the people the invaders displaced.

Orpheus, descending

Another group of stories gives Orpheus and his singing a religious setting, and this may be a more accurate indication of his significance. Orpheus was said to be a king of Thrace, yet he is associated with Olympos in Thessaly. His father Oeagrus was a king of Thrace too, but is described as god of wine. Perhaps both are associated with the entry of Dionysios from Thrace into Greece. Dionysios was known as the last god to be accepted into Olympos, but traces remain of him from Mycenean times. He was probably worshipped by the forerunners of the Greeks as a fertility god. Although the myth of his birth from the nymph Semele is well known, Dionysios was also said to be the son of Demeter, and was worshipped at the mystery religion at Eleusis. Probably the geographic locations of Thrace or Olympos are not important, Dionysios and perhaps Orpheus also being worshipped from the 12th century BC all over northern Greece.

These ancient cults were always to a form of the Goddess, and the female partners in associated myths are really more important that the Greeks made them out to be. The name Semele for instance has been thought to mean ‘earth’, and then Dionysios was ‘earth-born’. Through his birth from the thigh of Zeus he was also ‘second-born’ or perhaps ‘born-again’. The relationship with Demeter as her son, was as one who died, often in later times by being dismembered, and rose again with the new life in crops and farm animals. Perhaps as the concept of the goddess Demeter was developed, whose power was to bring the abundance of crops, Dionysios’ realm was narrowed to be that of wine. Demeter’s daughter Persephone had a dual role as both Queen of the Underworld and the power to bring forth new life in vegetation. Both were worshipped as part of the resurrection cult of personal salvation probably carried out at Eleusis. In this sense Dionysios has a close relationship with the daughter of Demeter, Persephone.

3 Demeter and cornucopia

There are parallels between Dionysios and Orpheus in some stories. Dionysios, like Orpheus, rescued a woman from Hades. Dionysios rescued his mother Semele, and took her to Olympos to live with the gods. In southern Greece. Dionysios was said to have done the same for the abandoned Ariadne. Dionysios, like Orpheus, and Pentheus, king of Thebes, was torn to pieces by the Maenads. A similar story has Lygurgus king of Thrace, driven mad by Dionysios and slicing his son Dryas into pieces.

These acts of seeming cruelty, slicing or tearing a victim to pieces, and the pieces often eaten by the faithful, have parallels with the Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis, and later, Christianity, and may fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of other resurrection myths, such as that of Adonis and Attis.

We seem to have disjointed fragments of a ritual that went something like this:

The god made sacrifice of herself to save her people and entered the underworld, and after many trials was able to come back to the world of the living, bringing a chance of immortality for the faithful.

At some stage a male consort or son went to the underworld to rescue her. Later, the roles were reversed and the male god died in the goddess’ stead, and was resurrected by her.

This belief recognised at first the power of life throughout the world, which dies and is reborn in each season. The rite allowed the gods to continue this process and ensue life for the faithful. Later the same rite became one of personal immortality in the afterlife for believers.

Associated with the rite was an initiation. Each one of the faithful was tested, and found worthy. As celebration of membership of the cult a ritual meal was held, representing the body and blood of the god who had died and been resurrected, and eternal life for believers.

It is possible that human sacrifice was the meal in earliest times, perhaps during the New Stone Age period. Perhaps bread and wine representing the body and blood of the sacrificed god were later substituted. We don’t know if the worshippers ‘saw’ the resurrected god during the ritual, but it was possible.

4 Greek goddess Diké

The goddess

A closer look at Eurydiké, Orpheus’ wife, who died and was kept in Hades because he looked back at her, reveals the goddess Diké, usually translated as Justice, but more exactly, Balance (and depicted sometimes carrying scales). This is Balance as exemplified by the message at Delphi, “Nothing to excess”, sometimes referred to as the Golden Mean, an important principle in Greek life (perhaps because the Greeks were an excitable, emotional lot who often did  things to excess). Diké could have started life as an attribute of the Goddess. The ‘eury’ bit of Eurydiké means far, or wide. Eurydiké’s death from the bite of a snake could be a reference to the priestess’ ritual of divination, in which snakes, the symbol of wisdom, were used, as in the statues from Minoan Crete.

Demeter is the Great Goddess, the Mother who provides life, seen in many cultures, and known as Inanna (Sumer); Ishtar (Babylon), Astarte (Phoenicia), Kybelé (Anatolia), and perhaps Ariadne (a name for the priestess/goddess figure with snakes on Crete) and Aphrodite in Cyprus (before she was ’specialised’ as goddess of erotic love). She is also Semele, ‘earth’. One of her titles is Pandora (all-giving). She gives both life and death, every new life containing its own death, hence the need to sacrifice to the gods to ensure continuity.

Persephone is known as the daughter of Demeter but originally was of equal stature (it is thought both were mother goddesses, one Greek, one pre-Greek). The two goddesses were worshipped together, sometimes in conjunction with a third, Hekaté, goddess of wisdom (whose name means ’she who comes from afar’, one of the attributes of Dionysos). The goddesses stood for the abundance of life, its seasonal loss and recurrence, and knowledge of the way. Like most triple goddesses, like the Fates, Moirai, they were aspects of the earlier Great Goddess.

5 Persephone and Hades

The shaman

The traveller to the underworld was originally a priest, known from primitive religions as a shaman. The shaman carried a sign of power, remembered in later traditions as the magician’s staff or wand. Through the ecstasy of the dance and the inspiration of the song, his senses disorder by narcotics, the shaman left the body and dwelt in the spirit realm. There he fought battles, uncovered hidden lore, and learnt the fate of the worshippers he served. Returning, his wisdom could be shared by partaking of his flesh, literally or symbolically. This might be the dying king figure identified by Frazer in the Golden Bough. Other visitors to the Underworld included Inanna, Gilgamesh, Hammurabi, Herakles, and Odysseus.

A figure such as this could be the origin of Orpheus, who was associated in later times with the worship of Hekaté and Demeter (Eleusis), Adonis and perhaps Mithras, vegetation cults evolving into saviour religions. Similar figure are Osiris (Egypt), Tammuz (Babylon), Attis (Phrygia). In the Adonia festival of Spring Athenian women mourned the loss of Adonis to death,and celebrated his return, exactly as they do now at Easter, a very emotional feast day in Greece. Adonis spent time each year in Hades like Persephone. The Attis figure could also be the origin of Dionysios.

6 Hekaté

This identification might explain why Orpheus was considered a seer similar to Pythagoras, one with hidden knowledge, conveyed through his sign of power, the lyre. This might have been the origin of Athenian drama, a conveying of wisdom from Hekaté and Persephone from the Underworld. Then this evolved into the Dithyramb in honour of Dionysios, who was originally an Orpheus figure. Then the development of character through the work of Thespis, onward to what we know of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

A characteristic of ancient religion of all cultures was lack of doctrine. The practice (the rite) was the important thing, not the theory (theology). So one god was the equivalent of another, one name of a god became the name of a god’s attribute, roles were reversed, and even male and female were not static. It’s possible that ancient gods were neither male nor female, despite their depiction as such by sculptors and painters. Given that many who retold tales of the gods were from a late period when the original cult practice was not fully understood, there is a kind of fluidity about divine roles and functions. This made it easy for the proselyting Christians to dismiss them and for Nietzsche to create a dialectic about them.

7 Ishtar

It is probable that ancient Greek religion, with no doctrine and a tendency to syncretise and find equivalents, as well as a history of the development of myth as story separated from the original rite, was very largely mystical. There were rites, and these served a union of social and political as well as religious purposes, yet in the act of worship the worshipper felt the presence of the god. The god was there, in the air, in the temple, in the vegetation. This could be a terrifying experience. Heroes like Orpheus, who combined the power of Apollo’s lyre with the promise of Dionysos’ new life, who could sway the gods with the beauty of their song, were valued. This is where I think Orpheus came from, a prophet whose fame as a singer and player on the lyre outlasted his vital role in a religion.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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