My Blog List

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!