Creative Power in Orphic Myths

By I. M. Oderberg

Mythology, like the severed head of Orpheus, goes on singing even in death and from afar. -- Carl Kerenyi

Ancient myths, especially those of a religious cast, open the door to experiences that are at once personal and universal. If we look back into our cultural heritage without imposing modern outlooks, we find that people of the past entered into the heart of the stories embodied in their myths. Both participants and audience lived the roles that were acted out -- they identified with the central characters and the events associated with them.

In the 19th century, myths were regarded as belonging to the childhood of the human race, as fictions or fairy tales to amuse the young or "uncultured savages." But myths must be examined from many aspects because they involve cosmology, history, and natural science. In the 20th century, serious consideration is being given to mythology, and gratitude is owed to the late Mircea Eliade whose massive research has placed mythology and comparative religion on a firm, scholarly footing. Two pioneers were C. G. Jung, and his collaborator, the mythologist Carl Kerenyi. Their Essays on a Science of Mythology is now regarded as a classic. They point out that by projecting themselves into the central theme of certain myths, our remote ancestors achieved not only insights into themselves but also transmutations of character.

As Kerenyi states in his Prolegomena to the book:

Only the greatest creations of mythology proper could hope to make clear to modern man that here he is face to face with a phenomenon which "in profundity, permanence, and universality is comparable only with Nature herself (F. W. J. von Schelling: Philosophie der Mythologie, Collected Works, II:136)." If we want to promote a real knowledge of mythology, we must not appeal at the outset to theoretical considerations and (not even to Schelling's . . . ). Neither should we talk overmuch of "sources." The water must be fetched and drunk fresh from the spring if it is to flow through us and quicken our hidden mythological talents.

In the days of Pericles, the Greeks euhemerized their gods and goddesses, thereby inspiring artists such as Phidias to personalize the Olympians into gigantic human beings. But much older than they, hidden in the mists of a remoter antiquity, were the creative Intelligences that were once honored as the architects and builders of our cosmos.

Ancient peoples resorted to myths to gain and give refreshment and a new stimulus. They recreated their myths every time they, or a new generation, entered into them, though of course giving them a different shape in keeping with their own mode of expression. However, the myths must have retained their original catalytic theme, otherwise they would not have survived. This indicates a creative power in true myth that works magic in the participants.

Orphic myths offer a good illustration of the creative power in their Mysteries. They present us with an Orpheus more complex than might appear at first sight. There are two main "biographical" sources: in one, he is a son of Apollo and the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope; in the other, the son of Oiagros and grandson of Charops to whom the god Dionysos had given instruction in rites and ceremonies connected with the Mysteries. Oiagros succeeded his father, and later Orpheus inherited those responsibilities. The comic writer Aristophanes spoke of Orpheus as a kind of missionary of civilization, because he taught country people music and other arts. At some time in the remote past a new impulse, more Oriental than traditional Greek, must have been introduced into the archaic Greek religion.

The English Platonist Thomas Taylor (1758-1835) spent a lifetime studying Greek texts, including the Orphic material available in his time. He took the old Greek view of "theology" as meaning words or treatises relating to gods or divine matters. In his Mystical Hymns of Orpheus, he wrote:

there formerly lived a person named Orpheus, who was the founder of theology among the Greeks, the institutor of their life and morals; the first of prophets, and the prince of poets . . . who taught them [the Greeks] their Sacred Rites and Mysteries, and from whose wisdom, as from a perennial and abundant fountain, the divine Muse of Homer and the sublime theology of Pythagoras and Plato flowed. -- pp. 2-3

Diodorus Siculus, Greek historian of the first century B.C., in his Historical Library describes Orpheus as a "man of natural genius and superlative training, who introduced many changes into the rites of the Mysteries: hence they called the rites which had their origin in Dionysos, Orphic" (iii, 65). It is notable that in both references Orpheus is credited with establishing or purifying already existing Mysteries.

The myths are considered both as a biography and a cosmogony. Professor F. S. Darrow described "seven symbolical moments" in the life of Orpheus:

1) his divine Birth; 2) his sacred Quest as the savior of the Argonautic expedition; 3) his mystic Marriage with Eurydice and his mission as a divine teacher; 4) his first Agony at the first death of Eurydice; 5) his Descent into Hades; 6) his second and final Agony at the second death of Eurydice, culminating in 7) his Passion. -- "Studies in Orphism," I

This was the mystical Orpheus, Pindar's "far-famed Bard" who, as tradition has it, was born in Thrace on Mount Olympus, son of Apollo and Calliope. Orpheus was taught music by his father who also gave him his phorminx or lyre, which was originally shaped like a triangle, and whose seven strings represented "the balanced harmony of the spheres of evolving nature" (Mead).

The Argonautic expedition to seek the Golden Fleece is commonly associated with Orpheus. The crew of the Argo consisted of Jason and other heroes, demigods such as Heracles, and Orpheus, each pursuing the Quest after his own manner. Anciently, gold was a symbol of light, and therefore the quest was for enlightenment. On six occasions of grave danger, Orpheus and his lyre saved the crew and the adventure. Because the lyre's seven strings symbolized the seven stages of initiation, the poem Argonautica was highly regarded by the Orphics.

In the well-known myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus may symbolize the monadic consciousness and Eurydice the soul, which enters the Underworld of material existence from which Orpheus must raise her. Hades represents a range of matter lower than that with which we are familiar. The myth also portrays the experience of a neophyte who, at an important stage of training, must pass through the doorway of death from this world and birth into the other ranges of consciousness. If successful in meeting the tests of the Underworld or after-death experience, he returns to awareness and to his entranced body, able to speak with the authority of direct knowledge.

Dr. Darrow refers to the etymology of the name Eurydice as meaning "she of wide power, authority, or justice," and by extension "she who is rich by right of succession." He finds it significant that after the mystic marriage with Eurydice, Orpheus returned to live in a cave on Mount Olympus where he spent the rest of his life teaching his simple neighbors the Mysteries "which thereafter in his honor were called Orphic."

The death of Eurydice by snakebite leads Orpheus to the Underworld where the magic of his lyre wins her release. This marks the end of the "first Agony", his turning back to see if Eurydice is following, forces her retreat and he undergoes his "second Agony." When he tries to follow her, Charon denies him passage, although the previous time the ferryman had been won over by the music of the lyre. Orpheus remains beside the river Styx for seven days without food or sleep and, after seven months' fasting in caves or under the open sky, he withdraws to the higher regions of Mounts Rhodope and Haemus.

In one version of the myth Zeus struck Orpheus by lightning for revealing the Mysteries of the gods to human beings. Another version states that on Mount Rhodope a band of frenzied Bacchantes, worshipers of Dionysos/Bacchus, asked Orpheus to play music for their dancing. But as Orpheus' lyre could play only sad strains, their leader incited the women to attack him. Their efforts failed because of the music of the lyre, until their shouting became an uproar, overwhelming the sound of the magic instrument, Orpheus was torn to pieces and his head and lyre were cast into the Hebru. As the river bore them along, the head continued to sing and the lyre to give forth its music. Finally, both reached Lesbos where they were said to have been preserved in a shrine dedicated to Apollo.

We could interpret this second version as follows: the Bacchantes represent the degenerate aspect of the old Dionysian Mysteries, and their dismemberment of Orpheus indicates the destruction or deterioration of the Orphic reforms. On the cosmic scale it may signify the One becoming the many, as spirit finds embodiment in material forms. This is reminiscent of the Egyptian myth of Osiris who is dismembered by his brother Set, symbol of unevolved matter. Isis gathers the scattered pieces, rejoins them, and Osiris is reborn on a higher level of manifestation, leaving his son Horus in his stead.

There is also a marked similarity between the Orphic rites and those of the earliest Christians, such as baptism, eucharist, and sacrifice. Paintings on old Christian sarcophagi of the Good Shepherd are copies of Greek originals depicting Orpheus taming wild animals by his magical music (Darrow).

When the Orphic Mysteries were at their purest, they embodied the myth of Zagreus, son of Zeus All-Father of the manifested cosmos (not the Olympian Zeus of whim and fancy). Zagreus was killed by the Titans, but his still beating heart was rescued form the flames by either Apollo or Pallas Athene. Zeus molded humankind from it and from the ashes of the Titans whim he had blasted with lightning.

Like those above, this myth symbolizes the duality of human nature. Zagreus represents the "divine prisoner" within each of us who remains imprisoned until all elements of our nature are raised to divine stature. The Titans represent the limiting, material qualities, Zagreus the god-aspect of man. So the death of Zagreus was not a real death or ending. Rather, it was a sacrificial act, a sacred offering.

Orphism was a way of life, a living experience, involving a purification of the soul, character development, a transmutation of our humanity into the universal radiance of the spirit. Thus the allegory of Zagreus enshrines the mystery of man's origin, and his rise from a sleeping god-spark to self-conscious expression of his full potential as a divine/human being.

The Orphic cosmogony envisioned the great universe (macrocosm) as ensouled by living entities of graded spirituality and powers, and man (microcosm) as exactly like his parent cosmos, each indissolubly part of the other. The Orphics refused to qualify Infinite Space except as the "Thrice-Unknown Darkness" -- a phrase apparently borrowed from the ancient Egyptians, although the idea is much older. First was Chronos, Unaging Time -- the Duration of The Secret Doctrine -- from which came Aether, Father or Spirit, and Chaos, Mother or Matter. From the interaction was produced the World Egg whose "first-born" was Phanes, the Shining One, also called Eros (not the personalized Eros of later Greek and Roman mythology, but the celestial Eros which preceded the gods).

The present cosmos is one of a series coming into being out of Chaos (quiescent substance), a process of activity and rest taking place in regular succession over vast periods of time. For the Orphics Chaos meant an unorganized, resting condition rather than an anarchic or disorganized state. Chaos was also called Mother Night, which became active through the impulse of Zeus All-Father. Indeed, Goddess Night was a fitting symbol for the summit of a divine order of beings that ultimately finds expression in matter.

The Orphic School lasted a very long time, though there were eras when the original teaching was obscured by the introduction of alien matter sometimes considered better because current at the time. In Plato's period the Dionysian ecstasies had degenerated to such an extent that the "sacred drink" of milk and honey had been replaced by wine, and orgies resulted. Nevertheless, Plato did preserve the best elements of Orphism.

An underground stream of pure Orphism must have flowed for a thousand years because we find an up-bubbling of the spring in the sixth century B.C., and another during the first four centuries A.D. A number of Orphic hymns were discovered late last century in tombs in Italy and Crete. These hymns were inscribed on small gold tablets giving after-death (or initiatory) instructions to those committed to the Orphic way of life. In one of them the human soul says:

I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven (alone).
The dedicated Orphics of whatever period in history not merely acted the dramatic portrayals of their "dismembered" god but lived the symbolic immersion in matter and the later ascent into perfected, self-conscious awareness of divinity.


(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, February/March 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Theosophical University Press. Revised from paper read at the Mythology Conference held February 14-15, 1987, convened by Jerry J. Hejka-Ekins, President, Southern California Federation of Lodges, TS [Adyar].)

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