Monday, 19 November 2012


When I think of Orpheus I think also of Dionysos. It has long been noticed that there are too many similarities and opposites to separate them completely from each other.

Writers like Jane Harrison and WKC Guthrie tend to see, or at least find it easiest to define Orpheus as a religious reformer; taking all that is wild and fierce in the worship of Dionysos, and turning it on its head.

This version has fueled the modern idea of Apollo as a rational god.

For it is said that Orpheus worshiped Apollo.

And Apollo in his modern form seems so different from Dionysos.

But the confusing link between Orpheus and Dionysos remains in my mind at least, unresolved. I'm not satisfied by the idea that myth requires a rational base.

Jane Harrison in Prolegomena quotes from Apollodorus:

'invented the mysteries of Dionysos'
but she does not say which Apollodorus:
Pseudo-Apollodorus, or Apollodorus of Athens (born c. 180 BC)?

Nevertheless, the idea had been about for a long time.

Herodotus c.484 – 425 BC regards Bacchic and Orphic as practically the same thing.

Whilst Herodotus was in Egypt he noted that corpses were never buried in woollen cloth or clothing and wrote:
 "In this respect they agree with the rites which are called Bacchic and Orphic but are really Egyptian and Pythagorean"
Herodotus also tells us that the cult of Dionyos was brought to Greece by the black footed Melampos:
"Melampos was the one who taught the Greeks the name of Dionysos and the way of sacrificing to him and the phallic procession; he did not exactly unveil the subject taking all its details into consideration, for the teachers who came after him made a fuller revelation; but it was from him that the Greeks learned to bear the phallus along in honor of Dionysos, and they got their present practice from his teaching" 
Melampos had learnt the art of divination and oracles from the Egyptians.

Euripides too mixes Dionysos with Orpheus when in the play Hippolytus, the character Theseus taunts his son for his ascetic principals:
Go revel in your Bacchic rites
With Orpheus for your Lord
Finally (for me, but not for you!) Diodorus Siculus, writing between 60 and 30 BC describes the treatment of the dead in Egypt:
When the body is ready to be buried the family announces the day of interment to the judges and to the relatives and friends of the deceased, and solemnly affirms that he who has just passed away — giving his name — "is about to cross the lake."  Then, when the judges, forty-two in number, have assembled and have taken seats in a hemicycle which has been built across the lake, the baris is launched, which has been prepared in advance by men especially engaged in that service, and which is in the charge of the boatman whom the Egyptians in their language charon. For this reason they insist that Orpheus, having visited Egypt in ancient times and witnessed this custom, merely invented his account of Hades, in part reproducing this practice and in part inventing on his own account  [LINK]

Herodotus and Diodorus recognise Dionysos and Orpheus in the fertility rituals of Min and the religion of Osiris the dead king, who is the green power within the earth to revivify.

Osiris dies but never dies.

He exists beyond, immanent within the earth.

This power was personified in Sumerian myth as female: Ninhursag as mother of the wild things, Inanna as guardian of sweet plenitude (the full store house). Ereshkigal was queen of the dead and described as perpetually in labour, as if she had some of Ninhusag's quality of revivifying the earth. Persephone, likewise, may be shown in Cretan iconography as plant-like, the force within old roots.

It was also personified as male: Dumuzi, Meslamtea and Ningishizida.

In one reading of the myth, when Persephone leaves the upper earth, nothing grows, not because Demeter grieves but because the life-work (the restoration)  must take place in the invisible, Great Below.

Greek myth is not separate from Mesopotamian and Egyptian myth. It didn't come into being fully formed. If it did it bears a striking resemblance to other, older myths. Nor did Mesopotamian and Egyptian myth arise in isolation. I recognise similar elements in each...

But for now
This is as far as I'm going.

Orpheus with his particularly Egyptian flavoured philosophy always makes my head spin!




Saturday, 3 November 2012

Orpheus and Eurydice.

The story?
It was their wedding day, just married.

Eurydice wondered away into the woods and was harassed by a satyr- a disreputable shambles of a goat legged pest, rampant, unapologetic and brimful of lust!

Eurydice ran.

She ran too close to a snake in the grass, was bitten and died.

As quick and implacable as that!

Orpheus was too late
Nothing could make him let go of her
Even after her body had been buried.

Distraught, he took up his lyre- a gift from Apollo- and set off to the Underworld to restore her soul to the world above, enchanting all he met, with his sweet, sweet songs...

Into the gloom he went.

Past Cerberus, past the shades and ghosts, down to Persephone and Hades.
Playing all the way.

There he charmed Persephone and gained a promise, that his dear wife may be returned to him if he can but lead her all through the the darkness of Erebus and back to the river with its promise of sunlight.

The path through the Underworld is complicated, narrow and wide, difficult to do even if Orpheus was allowed to see his wife...

Persephone gave the still living Orpheus permission to take Euydice on one condition.

That he would not turn to make sure that she still followed him

A difficult task, but not impossible, surely?

But Orpheus made the mistake Persephone knew he would make.

As Orpheus reaches the light, he turns to see his wife...
Still just within the darkness of Hell

To have to watch her drawn back, sealed away from him.
Until his own death.

Orpheus ends his days on Lesbos as a music teacher

He sends women so mad with frustration by his lack of desire for them...they tear him to bits.

Some say the god Dionysos took against him because he would worship none but Apollo.

His head goes floating away down stream.

Still singing.


Eurydice's role in this story reminds me of another charactor 'The power of the home'  'Alcestis' by Euripides.

Alcestis is newly married to 'the wild man' Admeatus. He, like Orpheus is favored by Apollo. In rreturn for helping the god, Admeatus is given a gift.

He may swap his death with someone else.

Admeatus is destined to die as a young man.
But if he can find someone else to take his place, death will leave him to grow old.

Admeatus thinks that at least one of his elderly parents will die for him; he has young children, surely a grandparent would not be able to watch a son die, and hear grandchildren crying for their father?


His father berates him:
"For better or worse your life is your own concern. I have done my duty by you: you have wide possessions; I shall leave you the large estate that I inherited; so what have you to complain of?
Have I robbed you?
I don’t expect you to die for me, and I’ll not die for you.
You enjoy life: do you think that I do not enjoy it?
I expect to be dead for a long time, and alive for a short time -yes, short, but still sweet.
You took pains enough to save your own skin! You have lived past your time, and as a result you have killed your wife -yes; and then you talk about my cowardice!
You are not fit to call yourself a man; your wife had more balls than you"!
Alcestis, Admeatus's wife, promises to take his place.
Much sadness follows- small children, and servants crying, tears and misery.

Alcestis dies.
Admeatus is shamed and realises that death would have been better than this...

But then Heracles turns up.

An old friend.
He wrestles with death
Returns with Alcestis- who is unrecognisable and unable to speak..
Heracles reassures Admeatus that she will recover, eventually.
The play ends.

The stories of Eurydice and Alcestis never delve into the psychology of these women, both tales portray events happening around the women, rather than what is actually happening to them.

Their thoughts and feelings are left as a blank.

But because of Eurydice, Orpheus goes to the Underworld and, more importantly, returned.

Both stories are connected to Apollo
Because Apollo is not only all bright intellect and light, but also the god of rot and decay with his origins (and plague arrows) from the Mesopotamian deity, Nergal.

The story of how Orpheus returns from the Underworld becomes a mystery cult.

Tradition has it that a hero is half-god, half-mortal. There are many stories of a hero's descent and return. When Strabo (64 BC – c. AD 24) tells of Orpheus, he describes him as an ordinary mortal.

This is something new.

As Orpheus had learnt where to go and what to do in the Underworld, it was possible that such a journey could be made by any of us. Following the Egyptian tradition, of books of the dead containing passwords and phrases required to get a person out of the grim and terrible places in the Underworld, so the 'Orphic' gold tablets are symbolic maps or passports required to help the newly dead cross the borders and boundaries.

People who had taken an Orphic initiation were promised a better Underworld and were buried with Gold tablets put in to their mouths. It has been suggested that the tablets were rolled to look almost like lips, to speak for the dead.

But they were also worn around the neck sometimes, as protective amulets.
I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven (alone).
The followers of Orpheus required initiations and rules about their conduct: vegetarian, sexual abstinence and a prohibition of being buried in woolen garments.

Their universe is the 'Pythagorean' one, including interpretations of divinity as 'forces' rather than personalities, and of 'Maya', reality tainted with illusion and projection.


Eurydice is Ευρυδικη: broad justice.
Eury means broad or wide (like Europa) and dike means justice.