Work in Progress:

Orpheus and the Bardic Journey

An article from the Saros Autumn 1996 Newsletter

For almost a year I have been working on a long essay on Orpheus. He seems such a fundamental character to Western culture, with his feet in Shamanism and his head in the highest religious principles - in his tour of the Underworld Dante placed him with the law-givers rather than the poets. Everyone has heard of him, no one seems sure of what he stands for. I am examining his myth in terms of the Octave of Man, and what follows is a shortened version of the section that reflects on Orpheus and the 'I'.


In pre-Christian grave sites in Southern Italy, archaeologists encounter a delicate and precious burial object again and again. For hundreds of years the dead here chose to be buried with thin sheets of gold, stamped with Greek writing. These sheets were treated in various ways. Sometimes they were laid on the corpse, but other examples are found rolled up and stuffed into items of jewellery, such as bracelets or necklaces, much as one would thrust a folded memo note somewhere in order to have it to hand when it was needed.

The writing itself is usually just a sentence or two, and the same sentences recur frequently. They are obviously fragments of a longer work, which is now lost and may have been lost in the course of antiquity. The sentences often show copying mistakes and some have had to be reconstructed by comparing several examples. As these were important ritual objects, one assumes that the errors are not the result of carelessness on the part of the goldsmith but due to fading collective memory, which retained just a few hackneyed phrases from a tradition that was preserved long after its original impulse was gone.

From the few fragments we possess, it is easy to work out the substance of the whole. It was a guide book to the Underworld, a work of psychopompery. Whether the complete work originally gave a grand schema of all creation is unknown. All that remains on the fragile gold plates is a set of very precise instructions for the soul as to how to accomplish a particular stage of its journey. These read very much like the instructions one would give to someone taking a journey in this world. Little is given by way of explanation. The deceased is given landmarks to look out for and details of the correct path to take. The way to the Underworld is a maze of paths, and it is important the soul takes the right one, particularly at one point where the main road forks, for here each road leads to a different fate in the next world, and there will be presumably no opportunity for back-tracking once a mistake is made, any more than a soul can change its mind and return to the world of the living. The deceased is likely to be misled by more than confusion or absent-mindedness. There are temptations on the way that might induce it to go astray. In particular, the wandering soul should be careful what it drinks, or rather where it drinks. The dead are assumed to be thirsty in Greek mythology, perhaps because the dying often are. They must not give in to the urge. Their future happiness depends on their capacity for self-control. They must ignore the first stream they come across and look out for another, among a grove of cypress trees. Cypresses were still being planted in cemeteries in Victorian times.

While it was possible for a deserving soul to wander into the regions of the lost, there appear to have been guardians placed on the roads to prevent the lost stumbling upon the regions of the blessed. As well as directions, the gold burial plates bore the standard phrases a soul would need to argue its case. These were passwords rather than evidence of personal worth, probably proofs of initiation into a mystery cult. By knowing what to ask for, the soul proved it was entitled to it. At least one of the graveyards where such burial plates are found has an inscription announcing that it is reserved for Bacchoi only, that is those initiated into the cult of Dionysos.

The prize the dead were instructed to ask for was 'the crown'. In Greek the word is 'stephanos' and its meaning in this context is ambiguous. At this distance in time it is impossible to be certain what the prospect of the crown actually meant to one of the Bacchoi as he or she prepared for the journey beyond the grave. His or her contemporaries were equally uncertain, and of course it is possible that different Bacchoi nursed different expectations themselves. The ambiguity is two-fold. Firstly, for us a crown is solely a symbol of royalty or rank. It will be made of gold or some other precious metal and signify power and privilege. The Greeks, however, had a great many crowns, each with different cultural associations. Most straightforwardly a crown could mean literally a prize: Greek society was highly competitive and awarded crowns for all kinds of activities. Artists competed like athletes and in both cases the struggle was not for excellence but for pre-eminence, and success was rewarded in the same way as a town acclaimed a victorious general, with a crown of laurel leaves. The dead soul could, then, be claiming to have overcome something, and be claiming its just reward. But crowns, or garlands - for the two were indistinguishable to the Greeks - had other social functions. At, feasts, and even drinking-parties, guests would be presented with a crown of flowers before they sat down. Those outside the Dionysiac cults naturally put this interpretation on the Bacchoi's expectations and desires for the afterlife. The thirsty soul would be entertained with something better than spring water, provided it had the right connections.

It should be noted that for the Greeks a crown was always a perishable thing. The joys of victories and pleasures alike were ephemeral. For us a crown is a permanent thing that passes from one person to the next. This obvious difference is worth considering in discerning the subtleties of the plate's meaning. For instance, a Greek might not expect to be dead forever: belief in reincarnation was widespread in the ancient world, inside the mystery cults and outside.

On the other hand the word 'stephanos' has another meaning which does imply permanence. It was often used to describe a city wall. The dead Bacchoi could have been seeking admission to a holy space, even a holy city.

The initiated Bacchoi must have nursed vastly different expectation among themselves. Some may have expected nothing more than a drinking-festival, and some must have expected nothing at all, for we have no reason to suppose that the natural uneasiness about death was easier to assuage then than it is now. The claim that a simple ritual procedure could guarantee anyone a blissful afterlife naturally attracted low cynicism which expressed itself in jokes that were appreciated by the sceptical and the elect alike. Much of the Dionysiac cult of Orpheus was entangled with folk-magic. For many, the Orphic sayings were no more than magic formulae or an insurance policy. But there were those who took them seriously, not just as a psychopompic guide to the Underworld, but as a rule for this life. For them the crown was something to be won not brought.

For the followers of Orpheus, life was a struggle, because they believed that man is divided by his nature. He is made up of the base Titanic elements that will drag him down into the basest behaviour and ultimately into the mud of Hades, the fate of the uninitiated and of many who are initiated too. For, on the defensive perhaps, the Orphics maintained that there was more to gaining a happy afterlife than participation in rites. Many were entitled to call themselves Bacchoi, few actually were. It was a person's entire character that would determine his or her future state. Orphism was a code to live by and demanded certain standards of behaviour. Most notable of these was the practice of vegetarianism. They shared this, and more besides, with the Pythagorean schools, but for different reasons. Their justification for a vegetarian diet was mythological rather than philosophical, and stemmed from their beliefs in the nature of mankind. The Orphics adapted the myths that had grown around the Cretan celebrations of Dionysos into a myth that explained the origins of humanity. According to their teachings, when the infant Dionysos was born from the adulterous union between Zeus and Persephone, the child attracted the jealousy of Hera, Zeus' wife. She in turn inflamed the Titans, the ancient race who had preceded even the Gods themselves and who had reason to hate Zeus on their own account. The Titans abducted the child and ate him. The crime was revealed to Zeus by one of their unwilling accomplices - the boy's half-sister had been forced to eat the child's heart in order to implicate her. Instead she managed to conceal it and used it as evidence of what had been done. Zeus was able to resurrect the child from these remains, but in his grief and fury he destroyed the Titans with a thunderbolt. And because the Titans had ingested a god, a new race arose from their ashes: us, humanity.

The consistency, or otherwise, of the many Greek myths which explain the origins of the universe should not concern us. This particular myth reveals how those Dionysiacs who took their inspiration from Orpheus understood the human condition. Descended from the Titans by the strange alchemy of a thunderbolt on the aftermath of a cannibal orgy, we bear collectively the guilt of their crime. Yet we retain a portion of the divine child, which is capable of redeeming us, and making us predominantly divine. Hence the horror of all meat-eating. It is a reminder of the outrage against nature which gave rise to our origins and which we have to atone for. Such a belief naturally alters an Orphic's attitude to life and death. For the body becomes the Titanic prison of the divine soul. In the extremes of Orphic symbolism the body itself is a tomb and dying a moment of release, an escape into our better nature. Or rather, it is the opportunity to effect such an escape, for there is always the risk that our Titanic nature will cause us to be reborn and entrap us again.

For this is not a simple conflict between matter and spirit. Our Titanic nature can follow us beyond the grave. If the soul gives in to the Titanic urge to slake its thirst too quickly at the wrong stream - if it forgets itself, in other words - it will be totally overwhelmed by its lower nature and trapped in the bowels of the Underworld, eventually to be reborn. As in all systems which contain the theory of reincarnation, the lost soul is unlikely to return to earth in human form, and this is a further reason why the Orphic abstains from eating all living creatures: because all meat-eating is cannibalism. For just as the Titanic is with us in the next world, so the Divine is with us in this one, and everything has a soul.

Yet the cult still remained excessive in many respects, and Orpheus notwithstanding, kept a savage bull sacrifice as its central rite. Why? In some cases the ritual may have become more restrained. Some sources speak of the celebrants merely miming the action of eating the raw and bloody flesh. Equally, when we hear of the practice being carried out to its full bloody extent, we should bear in mind that these reports may be exaggerated by enemies of the cult. Yet the fundamental act continues as long as the cult itself? Why?

The answer probably lies in the nature of the sacrifice. The bull was not an offering to the god but the god himself, who had possessed the bull. The ritual was the re-enactment of the terrible crime that lay at the heart of the cult's mythology. To participate was to acknowledge our collective human responsibility inherited from the Titans. But it also celebrated the god's ultimate resurrection and reaffirmed the presence of the Divine in the prison of the human body.

Although the Orphics believed that they had a portion of the Divine in them, and that every living being, however modest, shared this quality, they were not pantheists. It was not the case that their god permeated the universe and so happened to be within them as he was within everything else. To begin with, they acknowledged that not every part of themselves was divine. The Titanic remained and had to be overcome.

The twin pillars of Orphic life were asceticism, the self-denial necessary to conquer the Titanic, and enthusiasm, the frenzy that brought about communion with the Divine. The former was the influence of the Apollonian Orpheus on the wild Thracian cult. The latter was inherited from that cult but had changed its nature. The self was still lost in the climax of the Dionysiac rite, but not in the realms of Night. Nor was the body possessed and inflamed into acts of brutality. Instead of physical congress the devotee was drawn into a mystic marriage with the Divine. It was an equally self-effacing act but of an altogether different character. To experience Night was nihilistic: it involved a surrendering of the will to the forces of nature. The feeble self looked behind the curtain of nature, found that there was nothing there and echoed that vortex in its own being. All that was, was, and one might as well give oneself up to it and allow existence to overwhelm one in the fury of experience.

The ascetic Orphic sought a different kind of existence. The will was not abnegated but whittled down to one purpose. The natural urges which would distract it were overcome (which can only be achieved with the will, mysticism is nothing if not paradoxical). Once this was accomplished the overwhelmed soul can be carried beyond itself and claim its crown, whatever that may mean. The experience probably cannot be expressed any more clearly after the event, when the soul is once more in the grip of its Titanic body.

The follower of Orpheus mastered his desires in order to succumb to the ultimate one. His aim was to overcome life, which to him was a living death, and exchange it for a temporary experience of true existence which he expected to become permanent on his actual, physical death, when he would have the opportunity to act unencumbered by his body. This was the crown as those who considered themselves true Bacchoi saw it. The irony was that once it was obtained there would be nothing to rest it upon, for the self which had desired it so much would have melted away.

Bill Saunders

This page, and all contents, are Copyright (C) 1996 by Saros. The material may be used freely providing the source is acknowledged.