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A Basic Intro to Orphism

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A Basic Intro to Orphism

Post  Erodius on Wed Aug 07, 2013 6:15 pm

Excerpted from an article by Joscelyn Godwin for The Golden Thread, originally published 2007.
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"The enchantment of the landscape is exactly what Orpheus is reputed to have done with his music, playing a benign charm over nature and bringing peace among humanity. As part of his mission, he reformed the cult of Dionysus (Bacchus) and tried to persuade its followers to give up their blood sacrifices. In place of the rude Dionysian orgies, Orpheus founded the first Mysteries of Greece. The purpose of these was to transmit a kind of direct knowledge that was helpful in facing the prospect of death.

Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld to fetch Eurydice should be understood in the context of the Mysteries. In the earliest versions of the myth, he did succeed in restoring her to life. Only later was the episode embroidered by the poets so that it ended tragically, as Orpheus at the last moment disobeyed the ban on looking at his wife before he reached the surface of the earth, and lost her again forever.

Orpheus was originally a psychopomp (leader of souls) who had the power to rescue souls from the gray, dreamlike condition that was believed in archaic times to be the inevitable fate of the dead. Initiates of the Mysteries received the assurance that this would not be their fate, and that like Eurydice they would be saved from Pluto’s dismal realm. This was the first time that the immortality of the soul was taught on Greek soil, beginning a tradition that Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato would each enhance.

Most of public knowledge of Orphism derives from much later even than these philosophers. Under the Roman Empire, around the time of early Christianity, there was a strong resurgence of Orphism as a mystery religion. The Orphic Hymns, a set of songs addressed to the various gods and daemones, were transcribed in their current form around this revival. Far from discarding the worship of Bacchus, Orphism now made him the very core of its doctrine. One of the myths of Dionysus, as Zagreus, tells that as an infant he was captured by the Titans (the rivals of the gods), who dismembered and ate him. Fortunately Zeus was able to save his son’s heart. He
swallowed it himself, and in due time gave his son a second birth. The Titans were vanquished, and out of their remains came human beings. Consequently, every human body contains a tiny fragment of Dionysus.

It is easy to recognize in this myth the doctrine, familiar to us now, but by no means common then, that each person is not just a compound of body and soul, but also possesses a spark of absolute divinity. Religions that hold this doctrine are aimed at retrieving, reviving, and eventually realizing that spark, either in life or after death. To realize it — to “make it real” — is to become oneself a god, and henceforth immortal. That is the ultimate promise of the Mysteries. For the uninitiated, there is only the prospect of Hades, a place not of torment, except for the very wicked, but not of pleasure either, even for the best of men. Eventually the soul there withers and dies, releasing the divine spark to reincarnate in another body and soul.

This touches once again on the matter of conditional immortality, which is a constant concern of esoteric teaching and practice. The distinction is implicit as early as Homer’s Odyssey, though the relevant passage is probably an interpolation from classical times. When Odysseus sees the heroes in Hades, even the greatest of them is stuck there without hope of ascent, redemption, or rebirth. A single exception is made for Hercules. Odysseus, it is said, saw only his [Hercules'] image in Hades, while Hercules himself is among the eternal gods.
Hercules here represents the Initiate, who is freed from this wheel of birth and death, and is able to proceed to a more glorious destiny among the gods. As a reminder, the Orphic Initiates were not buried in tombs with pots of food and furniture, but cremated and buried with gold leaves inscribed in Greek. These carry prayers and instructions about what they should say and do upon awakening after death. They must avoid at all costs drink- ing from the Lake of Lethe (oblivion), but instead turn to the right, to the Lake of Mnemosyne (memory), and address its guardians in these beautiful words: “I am the child of earth and of starry Heaven. This you yourselves also know. I am dry with thirst and am dying. Come, give me at once cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.” Or, on meeting the rulers of Hades, they should say: “I come pure from the pure, Queen of the Underworld, O Eucles, Eubuleus, and all other gods! For I too claim to be of your race.”

By the Roman period, as we read in Ovid’s version of his story, the figure of Orpheus had become a tragic one. Not only did he lose Eurydice for the second time, but he himself suffered a cruel death. It is said that he returned to his native Thrace to try to reform the inhabitants to the true religion, but fell afoul of the Maenads, women followers of the unregenerate rites of Dionysus. Screaming to silence his divine songs, they tore him limb from limb. But his head floated to the sea and lodged in a rock on the isle of Lesbos, where it continued to sing. He himself was taken up by his father Apollo, and his lyre was raised to the stars as the constellation Lyra.
With this version of his myth, Orpheus took his place among the other suffering saviors whose cults were popular in cosmopolitan Rome: Idaeus/Zagreus, Attis, Adonis, Hercules, Osiris, and Jesus of Nazareth. These divine beings offered a personal relationship with their worshipers that many people found more satisfying than the distant Olympian gods. The implication was that as these gods had suffered, died, and returned to their native heaven, so too could their followers.

Some of the early Christians regarded Orpheus as a kind of pagan saint, even confusing his image with that of Jesus. Both saviors were demigods of royal descent who sought to refashion an existing religion in the interests of humanitarianism and enlightenment. Both descended into Hades to rescue loved ones from eternal death. (Jesus’ descent into Hades to deliver the souls of the Old Testament fathers is not biblical, but has been standard Christian teaching since the second century CE). Their religions taught the potential immortality of the soul, depending on one’s actions in life. Both suffered tragic deaths as martyred sacrifices to the religions they had tried to reform: Orpheus, as the dismembered victim of the Dionysian orgy; Jesus, as the lamb slain for the Passover supper. Their relations with their parent religions were highly ambiguous. Jesus, while acknowledging the Jewish god Yahweh as his heavenly father, treated the Torah's Mosaic Law with disdain, and supposedly died on the cross to appease his father’s anger with humanity. Orpheus was killed by the degenerate sectaries of Dionysus, imitating Zagreus' own death at the hands of the Titans.

The importance placed on the next life encouraged Orphics and Christians alike to defer their pleasures in this one. Both groups sought to live a life of chastity and abstinence (the Orphics were vegetarians) that was strange and incongruous with the society around them. It was also cause for surprise that both practiced friendship and welcoming to strangers, not merely to people of their own race and creed, as the Greeks and Jews tended to do. But this was a natural conclusion from the principle that each person was, in essence, divine. Consequently Orphism was the first religion in Europe, and perhaps the first anywhere in the world, to preach what we think of as “Christian” virtues — that is, to promise an afterlife whose quality depended on their practice, and to institute Mysteries as a foretaste of the soul’s future destiny.

The Orphics had been the first philosophers of Greece and the spiritual ancestors of the Pythagorean and Platonic schools, renowned for asceticism and for belief in the immortality of the soul. Now, in the Orphic revival, they stamped their principles on the new religion. Through numerical coding of key words and phrases in the Greek (New) Testament, Christianity was linked with the Orpheo-Pythagorean tradition, in which music and number were the first principles of the universe.

But this knowledge was not for general consumption. In two respects, Orphism was the first known esoteric religion. First, it imposed the Seal of the Mysteries, so that the teachings given in initiation were not revealed to outsiders. Second, it gave a pro-founder, symbolic interpretation to existing myths such as the theogony (the genealogy of the Graeco-Roman gods). Mysteries and the knowledge of hidden meanings in the scriptures have since been two of the chief marks of esoteric religions.

The Orphic impulse survives to this day, both in religion and in the arts, of which Apollo is the traditional overseer and the Muses the inspirers. These “arts” were originally disciplines that were closer in some ways to what we call sciences: they included history and astronomy, along with dance, music, poetry, and drama. Their effects were calculated, even in the literal sense of being governed by mathematics. This is obvious in the cases of astronomy and music. But poetry, too, is speech controlled by rhythmic number; dance is rhythmic and geometrical movement; drama and history control the unruly memories and rumors of earthly and divine events and turn them into moral and philosophical lessons.

Whatever the status of the arts today, the Muses were originally not in the business of entertaining people but of civilizing them, using deliberate and highly developed techniques based, for the most part, on number. This brings us back to the elaborate mathematics of Stonehenge and other prehistoric monuments, and to John Michell’s vision of a civilization held in a state of grace by the tireless chanting of a mantic song, its music ruled by number, order and proportion.

Orpheus, singing to Apollo’s lyre, is said to have had the power to move every kind of body and soul. He could force apart the Clashing Rocks so that the ship of the Argonauts could pass safely between them; he succeeded in touching the hearts of even the harshest chthonic gods. Stones that have been “moved” and set in geometrical order are the very substance of the Greek temples, monuments that even in their ruin command awed respect and convey a sense of sublime harmony. Music, too, though it may consist of nothing more than air vibrating according to mathematical laws, has always had an unaccountable power to touch the heart and exalt the spirit. In a well-ordered civilization, the two arts of architecture and music work in consort: the first, to provide harmonious surroundings for the body and to delight the eye; the second to delight the ear and to bring about harmony in the soul. Recent researches by Paul Devereux, Robert Jahn, and others, suggest that this link of stone buildings with music goes back to the Stone Age.

The Orphic and Apollonian ideal manifests in all those works of art that we call “classic.” They are not exclusive to Greece by any means. In ancient China, for example, a hieratic music, along with religious ceremonies, was recognized as the best means of procuring peace in the empire and the good government of its citizens.Mexico also has a version of Apollonian classicism in the architecture of the Mayas and their predecessors, which, like the European stone circles, was geometrically planned and cosmically oriented. The West has had classic phases in all the arts whenever the peak of a certain style is reached, and with it an image of harmonious diversity as reassuring as the regular passage of the sun through the seasons.

In Western music, the seven strings of Apollo’s lyre are sounded as the diatonic scale (the white notes of the piano). Their most “classic” manifestation is not in Bach or Mozart but in ancient plainsong, which served the Christian Church for fifteen hundred years or more before it was pushed aside by more "glamorous" types of music, and now nearly discarded altogether. The calming, healing, and uplifting power of plainsong chant is intuitively felt by the soul, just as it was in the time of Orpheus. The fact that it was employed for a time in Christian worship and given Latin words is a secondary matter.

Do music and the arts directly affect the quality of a civilization? No one can say for certain whether this Orphic premise is correct, because it has not been put into practice in modern times. Totalitarian governments have made a mockery of the idea. The Nazis banned atonal music because it was incomprehensible to their cultural pundits, and jazz because it was African-American in origin. The Russian Bolshevik Communists banned atonal music for the same reasons, and rock ’n’ roll because it was associated with protest and Western influence. These were hardly the proper motives for controlling a people’s music. But the rulers in question were not philosopher-kings, who alone may be expected to have their subjects’ spiritual interests at heart, and to have the knowledge of how to further them.

Even if depravity in the arts is not the cause of moral decay, it unfortunately mirrors many people’s spiritual state. The art critic Suzi Gablik, once a prominent mouthpiece for modernism, writes of how she emerged into a  realization after an “acute crisis of credibility about the core truths of modernity — secularism, individualism, bureaucracy, and pluralism — by which the numinous, the mythic, and the sacramental have been, in our society, reduced to meaningless rags.” When the arts are profane and purposeless, and dwell on ugliness and vice, one can be sure that the collective soul is not in good health. If the Orphics are right, this is as grave and serious a matter as the malnutrition of our nation’s poor. The outlook is dire and bleak for those souls nourished only by the junk food and poisonous additives of popular culture. How will it be for them to enter the soul’s domain with no songs to sing, no poetry to charm the harsh countenances of Pluto and Persephone?

The Orphic, and the Christian, solution is not to force people to change, but rather to gently persuade them toward a better way, and one can see this in the actions of the founders, as they tried to reform and enlighten the Greek Dionysian and Judean Mosaic traditions.

_________________
"O Best of Gods, blest daimon crown'd with fire . . . hear, and from punishment my soul absolve, the punishment incurr'd by pristine guilt, thro' Lethe's darkness and terrene desire: and if for long-extended years I'm doom'd in these drear realms Heav'n's exile to remain, O grant me soon the necessary means to gain that good which solitude confers on souls emerging from the bitter waves of fraudful Hyle's black, impetuous flood!"
-Iulianic Hymn to Apollon-Helios, ll. 65-106

"Having come for punishment, one must be punished. One must not pull apart the god within oneself."
-Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica

"Truth would you teach, or save a sinking land,
All hear, none aid you, and few understand."
-Alexander Pope


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Re: A Basic Intro to Orphism

Post  TheSeekingDisciple on Fri Aug 15, 2014 12:05 am

Hey, I haven`t posted in a while. I have been meaning to ask you some questions. What reading material would you recommend for the would-be Orphist(aside from the Orphic Hymns)? Are you familiar with Orpheus and Greek Religion: A Study of the Orphic Movement by W.K.C. Guthrie? If so, is it any good?
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Re: A Basic Intro to Orphism

Post  Erodius on Fri Aug 15, 2014 10:53 pm

Hey, I haven`t posted in a while. I have been meaning to ask you some questions. What reading material would you recommend for the would-be Orphist(aside from the Orphic Hymns)? Are you familiar with Orpheus and Greek Religion: A Study of the Orphic Movement by W.K.C. Guthrie? If so, is it any good?

Well, I'd recommend investing in an easel and some paints  Laughing  (an 'Orphist' is a kind of painter). 'Orphic' is the adjective and demonym for adherents of the religion. 

Thomas Taylor's Life and Theology of Orpheus (usually published as a preface to the Taylor translation of the Hymns, is an excellent resource from the internal, theological standpoint – however, it is fairly dense and could be difficult comprehension for a newcomer to Orphism; it's fairly high reading even for those familiar with the subject matter. 


I would also recommend definitely chapters 9-12 (although the full book is an excellent resource on Classical religion as a whole) of Jane Ellen Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, which are all focused on Orphism – a free PDF of this book is available here: http://olympianismos.forumotion.com/t195-an-intro-to-greek-religion

I am quite familiar with Orpheus and Greek Religion by Guthrie. I've read it cover to cover at least twice. It's a very good introductory text, and does a excellent job of examining Orpheus and Orphism and its development and setting within the context of broader Greek religion. 

Of course, I would also recommend taking a look through the site (pasted on my signature) that is kept up by the coordinator of the US line of Orphic mystipoli of the living lineage out of Greece. 

You are also always welcome to write me or Aktaion with questions.

_________________
"O Best of Gods, blest daimon crown'd with fire . . . hear, and from punishment my soul absolve, the punishment incurr'd by pristine guilt, thro' Lethe's darkness and terrene desire: and if for long-extended years I'm doom'd in these drear realms Heav'n's exile to remain, O grant me soon the necessary means to gain that good which solitude confers on souls emerging from the bitter waves of fraudful Hyle's black, impetuous flood!"
-Iulianic Hymn to Apollon-Helios, ll. 65-106

"Having come for punishment, one must be punished. One must not pull apart the god within oneself."
-Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica

"Truth would you teach, or save a sinking land,
All hear, none aid you, and few understand."
-Alexander Pope


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Re: A Basic Intro to Orphism

Post  TheSeekingDisciple on Sat Aug 16, 2014 2:34 pm

I have been reading Hellenicgods.org's stuff on Orphism. It's pretty informative. I can agree with a lot of Orphism; it doesn't really present anything too foreign when it comes to cosmology. It's stuff I have seen in Shaktism, in Qabbalah and in traditional Cree spirituality. It's definitely an interesting system.

My only real concerns are with chastity and vegetarianism. The former invokes a lot of negativity for some and seems pretty detrimental to mental health. Speaking from personal experience, I can`t really see any benefits to chastity. The Catholic Church`s sexual abuse scandals don`t really help either. I have heard the argument that not being chaste will somehow make someone forget about God or not be able to connect with God. I doubt this. A few others I have heard are that chastity increases lifespan; however, most of these studies are comparing clergy people to lay people and fail to account for different lifestyles. I have even seen one where humans are compared to fruit flies. The other argument I have heard is people saying that you can take your "sexual energy" and put it into art. This only works for some people, not all.

As for vegetarianism, I am not really sure I can do it. Swampy Cree ( a Native American subgroup) like myself don`t seem to take well to vegetarianism. It`s a culture whose staple diet was primarily wild game and a cultural group that  I can imagine wouldn`t have the thyroid for vegetarianism. I have nothing against it, I am just not too sure about it and would rather have my nurse practitioner help me with it.
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Re: A Basic Intro to Orphism

Post  Erodius on Sat Aug 16, 2014 3:52 pm

TheSeekingDisciple wrote:My only real concerns are with chastity and vegetarianism. The former invokes a lot of negativity for some and seems pretty detrimental to mental health. Speaking from personal experience, I can`t really see any benefits to chastity. The Catholic Church`s sexual abuse scandals don`t really help either. I have heard the argument that not being chaste will somehow make someone forget about God or not be able to connect with God. I doubt this. A few others I have heard are that chastity increases lifespan; however, most of these studies are comparing clergy people to lay people and fail to account for different lifestyles. I have even seen one where humans are compared to fruit flies. The other argument I have heard is people saying that you can take your "sexual energy" and put it into art. This only works for some people, not all.

As for vegetarianism, I am not really sure I can do it. Swampy Cree ( a Native American subgroup) like myself don`t seem to take well to vegetarianism. It`s a culture whose staple diet was primarily wild game and a cultural group that  I can imagine wouldn`t have the thyroid for vegetarianism. I have nothing against it, I am just not too sure about it and would rather have my nurse practitioner help me with it.

We live in a sex-drenched culture – at least most of us. Anything other than free sexual license seems to provoke accusations of puritanism. But, I think you are conflating chastity and celibacy, when the two are not exactly synonymous. Celibacy is certainly an observation of chastity, and many systems of chastity entail celibacy, but they are not inherently the same. For instance, sex between a married couple would likely be recognized as within the bounds of chastity by nearly every religion. Celibacy is abstinence from all sexual contact; chastity is abstinence from improper sexual contact (which may or may not include all forms of sexual contact – this depends on the religion, and even the denomination thereof). In terms of Orphism, the more Pythagorean/Platonic stream tends toward encouraging total celibacy (though there is still some variation by theologian), whereas the less Pythagorean/Platonic stream tends toward simple chastity – that is, avoidance of improper and ill-timed sexuality. 

As in Buddhism, for instance, observation of vegetarianism and the extremity thereof varies. Orphism forbids blood sacrifices as a whole as murder, being as animals are considered to have potentially human souls in their future lives, and death being, likewise, considered offensive to divinity. However, there is variation as to what degree this is considered to apply to being a full prohibition of meat consumption altogether. Again, the more Pythagorean/Platonic current leans more toward total prohibition of meat consumption, or even use of animal items (traditionally, Orphics wore only undyed linen (no wool nor leather), which was seen as a fairly distinctive mark in Antiquity), whereas the less Pythagorean/Platonic current does not expressly forbid eating meat, but only the act of slaughter itself. Furthermore, as in Christianity, in both currents of Orphism, fish is usually not considered meat (the prohibition against only certain species of fish is separate from that against animal flesh). 

I hope I've clarified some.

_________________
"O Best of Gods, blest daimon crown'd with fire . . . hear, and from punishment my soul absolve, the punishment incurr'd by pristine guilt, thro' Lethe's darkness and terrene desire: and if for long-extended years I'm doom'd in these drear realms Heav'n's exile to remain, O grant me soon the necessary means to gain that good which solitude confers on souls emerging from the bitter waves of fraudful Hyle's black, impetuous flood!"
-Iulianic Hymn to Apollon-Helios, ll. 65-106

"Having come for punishment, one must be punished. One must not pull apart the god within oneself."
-Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica

"Truth would you teach, or save a sinking land,
All hear, none aid you, and few understand."
-Alexander Pope


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Re: A Basic Intro to Orphism

Post  TheSeekingDisciple on Sat Aug 16, 2014 5:20 pm

Thank you for clearing that up. I hear different definitions of chastity from different groups so I am not really sure which one applies here. I can certainly agree that sexuality is a bit too excessive in this post-modern era.

I got you. I have heard of the Cathars being permitted fish as well. I don't think the Pythagorean stream will go too well with traditional Cree practices (not that I mix the two); all of the sacred items are composed of animals. 

I definitely like what I am reading so far. It appeals to me and it's definitely something I could practice.

Thank you.
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