Category Archives: Literature

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 []

The Real Story of the Trojan War (?)

In Book II of his Histories (112-120), the father of history, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, gives an alternative story, told to him by Egyptians who allegedly spoke with Helen’s husband Menelaus, about the kidnapping of Helen and the war of the Greeks on Troy.

It seems that when Paris (or, Alexander) stole Helen away from Sparta, he was blown off course and “wandered” for a while. Landing on a time in Egypt, he was met by Proteus, the king of that land. From disloyal servants of Paris, Proteus discovered what Paris had done, and, declaring him an impious man, gave him three days to leave Egypt. Helen, however, and the treasures Paris stole from Menelaus’ house, would remain with Proteus until the Greeks could come and retrieve them.

Herodotus says he thinks Homer knew this tale, but since it was not grand enough to suit epic poetry he chose to disregard it and accept the other tale, the one which has become immortalized in the Iliad. Herodotus’ evidence that Homer knew the other story comes from Iliad 6.289-292, which mentions Paris having stopped in Sidon on his way home to Troy with Helen. Also mentioned is Odyssey 4.351-52, which has Menelaus telling Odysseus’ son about his own enforced sojourn in Egypt.

But why was Menelaus in Egypt? The Egyptians, says Herodotus, told him the real story behind the Trojan War. Thinking Paris to have gone straight back to Troy with Helen, the Greeks raised their armada and besieged the city. The Trojans denied having Helen or the stolen treasures, and told the Greeks that Helen was with Proteus in Egypt. But since the Greeks didn’t believe them they sacked the city anyway. Not finding Helen within, they then sent Menelaus to Egypt, where he found his wife and his treasures exactly as the Trojans had said.

Fascinatingly, Herodotus believes his Egyptian sources over Homer, and gives as his reason the supposition that the Trojans would not have endangered their entire city for the lust of an erring boy prince who, at any rate, was not due to inherit the kingdom when his father died (that honor would go to Hector). Herodotus thinks that the Trojans told the truth, but that the Greeks sacked the city anyway because “the Divine was laying his plans that, as the Trojans perished in utter destruction, they might make this thing manifest to all the world: that for great wrongdoings, great also are the punishments from the gods.” Says Herodotus, “That is what I think, and that is what I am saying here.”

This is all very interesting, to say the least. I think that Herodotus is right that the “real” story of the Trojan War wouldn’t have been fitting for an epic poem, and in the spirit of his critical historical inquiries it does seem best to critique the myth and present the “real” history. But on the other hand, assuming that Homer’s purpose was far different from that of Herodotus, and also assuming (along with Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) that “myth” has much to teach us even if it is not, technically speaking, “true,” I’m going to stick with Homer’s account.

That “Silly” Old Gilgamesh

Recently, my daughters read a set of history stories put out by a classical education publisher. Driven by the old pietistic Evangelical cardboard-cutout plot of “Everything-Done-And-Said-For-Spiritual-Purpose-of-Evangelizing-Lost-Character,” the chapters walk said unbeliever through the course of history, exposing the manifold follies of unbelieving worldviews by “simply” setting them side-by-side with the Bible and laughing at the divergences, as if their mere existence proves the veracity of the Christian view. As I paged through the book, marketed to adolescent readers, I cringed more than once at the obvious fact that the authors apparently really do believe that the cardboard cutout theology-apologetics they present to young people is totally compatible with the best aims, methods, and academic goals of classical Christian education.

Among the troublesome remarks made in this book published as part of a “classical” education reading diet there occurred a description of the adolescent Christian main character’s view that the Epic of Gilgamesh is a rather “silly” book. We might expect such an opinion from an adolescent, since at that age the very faculty of judgment is still developing along with the brain. But it was an adult classical educator who wrote the book, so I suppose we ought to be scratching our heads wondering what’s going on. Gilgamesh a “silly” book? Whatever else it might be called, “silly” should never be among the choices. Allow me to explain why.

Imagine a world literally (!) and biblically (!) like the one that the opening words of Genesis 6 describe:

Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful, and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose…There were giants on the earth in those days and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. (1-4)

It is well-known that Christians don’t agree on the identity of these “sons of God” (some see them as human scions of the godly line of Seth, here doing evil things; others as fallen angels who took on bodies, here doing evil things), but one thing is crystal-clear: the union of these sons with these daughters produced giants, “the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” We’re surely not too far off the mark in saying that the products of these marriages seem to be a good bit like what mythology calls “demigods.” And that leads us to the realization that, lo and behold, Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, happens to be a demigod (2/3 god, 1/3 man) of gigantic dimensions: “A triple cubit was his foot, half a rod his leg. Six cubits was his stride…” (I.56)

This already, from the opening lines of the Epic, should be enough not only to arrest our attention but to render forever null and void any adolescent judgment that this is going to be a “silly” book. We may have here, rather, the earliest piece of surviving human literature describing the adventures of one of the Nephilim in lands still then under the yoke of demonic overlords (cf. “the Prince of Persia,” Dan. 10). And when we realize that, putting our best guess to dates, a real Gilgamesh would have preceded Father Abraham by only 500 years, and the latter may well have grown up hearing about the hunt for Humbaba, the tragic death of Enkidu, and the quest for Uta-na-pishtim, we might well feel a stronger connection to Abraham than before. Moreover, as people who believe in a book full of angelic appearances and miracles, we ought to be more disposed to find the basic story line of Gilgamesh plausible, not less.

I would like to present you a more properly classical way to view the Epic of Gilgamesh, a way that doesn’t approach it first as the product of a heathen mind (followed by a childish indulgence in laughter, as if we, given all we have by grace alone, are somehow better than they), but as the product of a human mind, a mind which, though darkened in many ways by sin, yet retains enough God-given light to come to many true conclusions about God’s world.

For one, the Epic of Gilgamesh raises profound questions about the roots of, and even the value of, civilization. Like most important cities in the Ancient world, Uruk was founded with a divine imprimatur, in this case, under the direct oversight of a demigod. Yet this divine imprimatur does not include an inherent ethical component, let alone a foundation encouraging political wisdom. Gilgamesh, a literal giant of a man, is a moral pygmy when we first meet him, tyrannizing his people, stealing brides right and left, and well exemplifying the adage “Might makes right.” It is an all-too common pattern in human history, broken only here and there prior to Christianity (by the Greeks and the Romans, for instance), and since the very first city ever was founded by a fratricide, Cain, we might do well to stop and ponder whether there is just something about fallen city living that leaves much to be desired. Cities solve many problems by centralizing power and the means of production, but it is precisely these great strengths that can easily become great weaknesses that radically affect thousands or millions. Maybe the quiet, peaceful, “in touch with nature” life of the herdsman in Gilgamesh is better? It was Abel’s “natural” sacrifice that God accepted, not Cain’s “technological” one. Gilgamesh offers us a chance to ponder such deep and abiding questions about what it means to be human.

For another thing, the early physical clash of Gilgamesh and Enkidu may be seen as symbolically representing the moral clash of the corruption of fallen city life with behavioral norms that are so connected to the natural order that even one who comes from the beasts simply knows them to be true. Here, even the cult prostitution angle provides some light. Ancient divinized politics did often have a literal sexual dimension, in which union with the female cult symbol represented participation in the divine order of the cosmos. But at the same time, in Gilgamesh it takes the prostitute to “civilize” nature, and the moment nature becomes “civilized,” it loses something wild and free that it once had. At the same time, the prostitute fails to incorporate Enkidu into the corrupt politics of Uruk, for the first thing he does on arriving in town is find and combat Gilgamesh at the door of a bride the latter is trying to steal. In our own time, when too many people simply feel no shame restraining them from all manner of actions traditionally deemed evil, and when too many profess no longer to be able to rationally tell such simple things as who belongs in what bathroom, it is somewhat refreshing, not to mention provocative, to read an old pagan book asserting the knowability and universality of natural moral norms. And on the other side, it may be worth asking what sorts of “seductive” effects civilization has on its adherents. Are we entirely sure it is good to live in cities and be shaped from cradle to grave by their incessant hustle-bustle, pluralism, and commercialism?

For a third thing, pagan or not, the book contains two major invocations of the hardwired limitations of mortals under God, particularly with respect to limitation of lifespan, and with these two it doubly underscores the duty of mortals under God to accept their limited lot and strive to do right until the end. The end of the epic is ambiguous as to how Gilgamesh lives when he returns home, but it is difficult not to surmise from the repetition of the opening phrases about the dimensions and wonders of Uruk that the hero has come to terms with his mortality and limited-ness, given up on his distorting quest for god-like honor and glory, and so, hopefully, set out to be a better, more humane sort of ruler. Speculation, yes, but warranted by how much Enkidu changes him and how deeply his abject failure to attain what only gods can have affected his disposition.

These are only three points of a number that could be raised. I think they are enough to show that the quality judgment on Gilgamesh given by the adolescent character I mentioned at the outset ought to be taken with a grain of salt. It might be true that we could get some laughs out of it here and there, particularly when Gilgamesh calls the depraved goddess Ishtar a simple whore who kills all her lovers and when Enkidu throws a bloody haunch of the Bull of Heaven at her. But to baldly judge it a “silly” book? Does such a sloppy judgment even need refuting? And more to the point, should classical educators, who of all types of educators ought to be characterized by modesty of judgment born of a growing sense of knowing-that-they-don’t-know, be writing superficial twaddle like that in the first place? Are we trying to make our children good interpreters of wide swaths of God’s world, or just self-important cynics laughing at all that doesn’t immediately “click” into place in their own current experiences?