Thursday, February 16, 2012

Orpheus and the Pursuit of Immortality Through Divinity

Book Review: Orpheus And The Pursuit of Immortality Through Divinity by Harold R. Willoughby (Kindle Edition date unknown circa 1930’s to 1960’s)

This is a short text that analyses the salvific doctrines of Orphism. The author notes that Orphism is a reform of the Rites of Dionysus. Orphism was probably established by 600 BC and is thought to be quite closely related to the doctrines of Pythagoreans. Orpheus, whether a man or mythical figure, was considered to be different than the mad and wine-drunk Dionysus. Orpheus was depicted as a sober musician who tamed wild men and beasts with his music. Despite these differences Orphics also sought immortality through the god Dionysus. Rather than uniting with the god through orgiastic drunkenness the approach apparently was wholly different, quite opposite. In Orphism, immortality was courted through one’s ascetic behavior and restraint.

The main sources of knowledge about the Orphic Mysteries are the classical writers Pindar, Plato, Aristophanes, Euripedes, and later Strabo and Plutarch – and Orphic tablets found in tombs in south Italy and Crete. These are thought to be instructions to the deceased for the next world. I am not sure if these tablets are similar or related to the so-called – Mystical Hymns of Orpheus – of the Neoplatonists. Southern Italy is thought to have been an area of Orphic brotherhoods and a place where famed philosophers such as Parmenides and Pythagoras lived. Clement of Alexandria’s ‘Exhortation to the Greeks’ also mentions some Orphic lore that is now lost.

Clement of Alexandria’s text mentions Dionysus Zagreus (the hunter), son of Zeus and Persephone. Destined to become the king of the gods after his father he was killed by jealous Titans who tore him to pieces and cooked and ate them. The heart was gathered by Athena, brought to Zeus whereby he swallowed it, and after mating with Semele, Dionysus was born – so Dionysus was Zagreus reborn. This was probably related to a similar eatrlier Cretan rite of eating raw flesh. In any case, the Orphic cult is based on the character of Dionysus Zagreus. After the Titans consumed him Zeus blasted them with thunderbolts and from the ash from that blasting, man was created. So man arose from two differing natures, one divine (Dionysus Zagreus) and the other base (Titans). This is the myth behind the Orphic notion that man is essentially a soul imprisoned in a body. The tablets note that:

“I am a child of the Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven.”

This notion of body/soul dualism is a key Orphic idea. Orphic discipline attempts to purify the stain that is the body through asceticism and specific purifying morality.

Also the Orphics believed in reincarnation, or a series of long and arduous reincarnations that would eventually purify the soul. The disciplines are meant to bypass this suffering. So this goal of removing oneself from the wheel of transmigration is not too dissimilar to Hindu/Buddhist/Jain notions of karma and rebirth. The concept of some sort of moral Justice was perhaps equated with divinity. According to Pindar, Plato, and Empedocles the soul had to endure three migration cycles of a thousand or ten thousand years each before being purified the slow way. Proclus suggested that the initiator was Orpheus, the mysteries were those of Dionysus and Kore, and the goal was release of the soul from transmigration. Persephone or Kore is referred to in the tablets as: “the Pure Queen of Them Below.” She is addressed in the initiations and lore with various affirmations. Upon passing purified to the land of death Below one addresses her joyfully with the following affirmation:

“I have flown out of the sorrowful weary Wheel;
I have passed with eager feet to the Circle desired.”

Orpheus is thought by some to have been a priest of Dionysus that reformed the Bacchic rites. Central to the initiation in both rites was the consuming of raw flesh, that of a sacrificed bull. This was eucharistic and thought to nourish the spark of divinity as Dionysus Zagreus that was in man from the ashes of the Titans. It needed nourishment for it was said to be weak. It was also in a sense a re-enactment of the tragedy that befell Dionysus Zagreus. They would daub themselves with white clay or gypsum during the initiation rites as the Titans had done to disguise themselves in the myth. The clay, gypsum, mud, or pitch was thought to have also been a spiritual cleansing.

After the initial feast of flesh the austerities began. There was now an abstention from all flesh and all animal foods. These were now considered unclean. Herodotus mentions the similarities of Orphism, Egyptian practices, and Pythagoreanism. He notes that they took baths and aspersions, avoided funerals and marriages, avoided all food that was dead or killed, and avoided beans as well. A corpse was seen as void of the Dionysian element, being only the tainted Titan element. The Orphics were said to favor clothes of pure white. It was assumed, even by old classical writers such as Pindar, that the ceremonial purity sought by Orphics had a positive effect on morality and that even knowing the lore of the Orphics could promote morality. Orphism banned slaughter, murder, and suicide and so in that sense also promoted peace. Willoughby notes that:

“There were certain postmortem rules of conduct to be observed as well. The Orphic tablets bring this out most clearly. They chart the geography of the next world for the initiate, acquaint him with the divine beings who have the determination of future weal or woe, prescribe certain ritual acts to be observed, and instruct him in formularies and confessions to be repeated under certain circumstances.”

One tablet mentions two wellsprings to the left and right of Hades. The one to the left, presumably the Well of Forgetfulness, was to be avoided. One is instructed to drink from the well on the right, the Well of Memory. One was to utter to the guardians of the Well of Memory, “I am a child of Earth and Starry Heaven.”

Other Orphic practices included ‘purgations,’ fasting, and regular recitations of prayers and confessions. So life became for them a process of return to a divine nature through austerity and generally favoring morality and self-control over bodily pleasures. Willoughby refers to this process as ‘regeneration’ and presumably examines this idea in his book “Pagan Regeneration. According to 18th century Neo-platonist Thomas Taylor the works of Orpheus preceded those of Pythagoras and Plato and all are the same doctrines – although Plato was known to ridicule to Orphic notions. He refers to these doctrines as theologies and indeed the Hymns of Orpheus are hymns to many of the classical deities and anthropomorphized natural forces and qualities identified by the Greeks.

The author notes that Orphism was definitely influential in classical Greek times but perhaps was less so in Hellenistic times, although there are several indications that it was still around to some extent. The author notes a recently discovered Orpheum (presumably a meeting place of Orphics) in the ruins of Pompeii after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Willoughby also suggests that it merged with other doctrines, religions, philosophies, and movements. So the Orphic notions probably became institutionalized into Greek culture to some extent in Hellenistic times. The Orphic Mysteries were said to remain popular at Eleusis and may have in some ways become incorporated into the Eleusinian Mysteries as translators of the Mystical Hymns of Orpheus seem to suggest. Indeed Orpheus is sometimes said to be the originator of the Mysteries. There seems to be some similarities as well between redemptive Orphic dualism and redemptive Gnostic dualism although the symbolism of light and dark seem to be pre-eminent in Gnosticism.

Accounts from Plutarch indicate that women and children could also attend certain Orphic rites. Since the soul of a moral man was thought to enter divinity upon death it has been said that these dead were deified. Tomb inscriptions seem to indicate that these ancestors were particularly venerated by the Orphics. One inscription even summarizes the Orphic doctrine:

“The body is the garment of the soul. Honor the God in me.”

Some syncretistic religions from Hellenistic Asia Minor and particularly Egypt possibly combined ideas from Orphism, Hermeticism, the Osiris cult, and local traditions. The Orphic regeneration ideas probably influenced early Christianity as well.

Not much is said in this little book about the mythology of Orpheus. He was said to be a son of the muse Calliope and a Thracian king. He is an archetypal musician, singer, and poet so should rank as a key character of bardic tradition and tribal memory. One of his stories is that of leading the maiden Eurydice from the Underworld though she dies before they return. There appear to be many varying versions of this story. Orpheus is sometimes given as the first being to reveal the mysteries of the gods to men. He is killed in various ways in the varying myths. One is that he was torn to pieces by Dionysian menaeads for failing to properly venerate his god on one occasion. His lyre was placed in the heavens as the well-known constellation Lyra. He is also associated with the swan and there was a story of him choosing to incarnate as a swan. For this he has also been associated with the constellation Cygnus and interestingly the first association of a cross with a religious figure is said to be an icon of Orpheus with a cross possibly representing the cross-shaped Cygnus constellation. There is also a story of the head of Orpheus being able to sing and speak oracles. This talking head has been compared to the much later head of Baphomet of the Templars and is similar as well to the talking head of the Celtic Bran.

Orphism can possibly be seen as one of the earliest forms of urban ‘organized’ religion that we know about through extensive writings. Plato describes the Orphics as vegetarian beggar priests who wander around doing prayers for people.

No comments:

Post a Comment