Orpheus and Orphism (Part 1)

Given that engaging mythology is a significant part of classical Christian education, it’s likely that most of us have some familiarity with the figure of Orpheus. Sometimes he is reported as the son of the god Apollo and the Muse Calliope; outside myth storybooks, he is rather reported as the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and Calliope. Parentage disagreements aside, Orpheus is famous for a couple of widely-cited reasons: the aid he gave to Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece,1 and his descent into the Underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, which ended in failure but at least showed that Orpheus’ music could charm even the god of the dead.2.

Orpheus Among the Thracians

Greek tragedy offers additional information about Orpheus that needs to be carefully processed, including that his songs had power over inanimate objects as well as animate, and that he had connections with Bacchanalic frenzies.3. In a fascinating historical connection, some sources tell us that when the Dionysian cult invaded Thrace, where Orpheus lived, he refused to honor the new god and instead taught his countrymen to abhor as a great evil the sacrificial murdering of human beings.4 Contra Dionysius, Orpheus preached the supremacy of Apollo, for which “blasphemy” Dionysius apparently had the Maenads tear him apart.5 An alternate version of his death is that Zeus struck him with a lightning bolt for having revealed divine secrets via the mystery religions he set up.6 Though without mentiong the how of Orpheus’ death, no less a source than Plato has it, perhaps surprisingly, that Orpheus’ descent to Hades was an act of cowardice supposedly typical of minstrels, and that the god of death tricked him by showing him only an apparition of Eurydice – after which the gods arranged for his death:

In this manner even the gods give special honor to zeal and courage in concerns of love. But Orpheus, son of Oeagrus, they sent back with failure from Hades, showing him only a wraith of the woman for whom he came; her real self they would not bestow, for he was accounted to have gone upon a coward’s quest, too like the minstrel that he was, and to have lacked the spirit to die as Alcestis did for the sake of love, when he contrived the means of entering Hades alive. Wherefore they laid upon him the penalty he deserved, and caused him to meet his death.7

All these interesting items aside, Orpheus bears far greater import for classical Christian educators than just these “grammar-level” stories and criticisms. Perhaps most importantly for how we Christians deal with pagan mythology, Orpheus has been credited with formulating at least the rudiments of a system of “hyperspiritual” religious rites that eventually became a robust pagan religious offering, Orphism.

As Orphism and its influences is, as far as I can tell, a little-commented-upon topic in classical education circles, and as I myself am in no way an expert on it, this post is merely an attempt to sketch the issues. The remainder of this post and much of the next, in fact, draw very heavily upon classicist W.K.C. Guthrie’s The Greeks and their Gods.8

A Bare-Bones Sketch of Orphic Ontology

6th century B.C. Greece, in which Orphic religion arose, occupied itself largely with the thorny metaphysical Problem of the One and the Many. In a world teeming with Many individual, distinct things, what held them all together into the One overarching cosmos that was equally undeniable from experience? Concentrated in the religious imagination, this conundrum took the form of how to explain and express the presumed basic unity between the divine and the human soul.9 One solution was offered by the followers of Dionysius, who believed the god would at special times lift the human soul out of itself, so to speak, through the practice of passionate and frenzied mystical experiences. But, interestingly, Dionysian orgia did not widely catch on, for the Greek mind in general held the maxim, “mortal thoughts for mortals,” and so wanted to steer far clear of such uncontrollable ecstasies as being rather unhuman.10

The Orphics, by contrast, tried to solve the One-Many dichotomy by positing a sythesis of the mystical Dionysian and rational Apollonian religions. This Orphic synthesis turns out to be that the human soul simply is divine and also immortal, but requires a continual and rigorous process of catharsis, or purification by way of elaborate ascetic rituals in order to be “clean” enough for union with the divine.

Orphic ontology (beliefs about being) were crassly mythological, beginning with the generation of a cosmos by the first great god, Eros (Love), one of whose children, Zeus, swallows the whole thing and recreates it anew. Although superficially similar to other stories, such as Kronos swallowing his children and Zeus swallowing his first wife, Metis, this Orphic ontology should be of interest to Christians because, as Guthrie puts it, “through these crude folk-tales a new idea is set forth, the idea that the god who rules the world is also its creator.”11

What we should make of this germ of truth is certainly open for debate. In the next post, I’ll finish bare-bones sketching Orphism so that between these two posts there will be a foundation for further exploratory work relative to the myths themselves.

  1. Apollonius, Argonautica []
  2. Ovid, Metamorphoses X.1-85 []
  3. See these plays of Euripides: Rhesus 944, 946; Medea 543; Iphigenia in Aulis 1211; Bacchae 561; Cyclops 646; Alcestis 357; Hippolytus 953; Bacchae 561 []
  4. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Vol. 1 (London: The Folio Society, 1996), pp. 112-113 []
  5. Graves, ibid., p. 113. The rest of the story as related by Graves definitely “demythologizes” the children’s storybook version of Orpheus: while condemning Dionysian promiscuity, he apparently also advocated homosexuality, which made Aphrodite his enemy, as well! []
  6. Graes, ibid. []
  7. Symposium 179d-e []
  8. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1950 []
  9. Lest this sound immediately and entirely unbiblical, recall that most basic of biblical doctrines, creation in the image of God, as His offspring, which implies some sort of union-connection between God and His image-bearers, not to mention the Apostle Peter’s remarks about becoming “partakers of the divine nature” through Christ. It should be clear that per se the notion of unity with God is not necessarily unbiblical and anti-Christian. []
  10. Guthrie, pp. 316-317. []
  11. The Greeks and Their Gods, p. 319 []

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