Tag Archives: Dionysus

“Orphic Reform” by Harold R. Wiloughby

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I recently read an article on the Symbol Reader blog about Orpheus. If you are not familiar with this blog, I suggest you check it out. It is my favorite blog out there. Anyway, I inquired about a suggestion to read that would give me some more information about Orpheus, since I was not very familiar with the mythology. She pointed me to the following page.

Sacred Texts

This is actually a chapter from a larger work called Pagan Regeneration. It is a very good piece and gave me a lot of information regarding Orpheus and the mystery cult that developed from the myth.

Wiloughby explains that it is not clear whether Orpheus actually existed or not. What is clear is that Orpheus seems to balance the Dionysian frenzy by adding a sober and calming view. He is credited with teaching the mystical arts to humans. Essentially, he was a reformer.

It is not possible to pronounce with certainty whether such a man as Orpheus ever really existed or not. He may have been a purely mythical figure. If he was a real man he was a religious leader of mark and deserving of admiration: a prophet, reformer, and martyr. Whether mythical or real, Orpheus was the antitype of the flushed and maddening wine-god Dionysus. He was a sober and gentle musician who charmed savage men and beasts with his music, an exact theologian, the prophet of reform in religion, who was martyred for his efforts.

The Orphic teachings passed down through the cult include instructions for the afterlife, not dissimilar to Egyptian writings.

Quite as revealing as these literary references, however, are the so-called Orphic tablets from tombs in southern Italy and Crete. They are eight in number and are all of very thin gold. According to a consensus of scholarly opinion, they contain the mutilated fragments of a ritual hymn composed for members of the Orphic sect as early as the fifth century B.C. In their present form they may be dated roughly from the fourth century B.C. to the second century of our era. Their purpose is self-evident. Buried with the dead they were intended to give instructions concerning conduct in the next world, formularies and confessionals to be repeated, and directions as to postmortem ceremonial observances. Their ritualistic character and the tone of conviction that pervades them give them peculiar value as sources of information concerning Orphic experience and practice. These remarkable tablets, though they are few in number, constitute our most valuable source materials for the Orphic cult.

One aspect of the Orphic philosophy that I found fascinating was the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul, something that has always interested me. Essentially, initiates into the cult believed that the soul passed through a series of reincarnations until it was purified to the point that it became godlike again.

In its first analysis, therefore, the Orphic process of salvation was a process of purification from bodily taint. The problem, however, was not such a simple one as these words would indicate. It was not merely from the evils of a single existence that the Orphic sought deliverance, but from the evils of a long series of bodily existences. The Orphic first, and the Pythagorean later, believed in the transmigration of souls from body to body. On leaving the corpse at death, the soul was normally doomed to inhabit the bodies of other men or of animals even, passing on through a chain of physical existences until finally purified. An Orphic fragment preserved by Proclus reads: “Therefore the soul of man changing in the cycles of time enters into various creatures; now it enters a horse, again it becomes a sheep . . . . or as one of the tribe of chill serpents creeps on the sacred ground.” Reincarnation, like dualism, was an important item in Orphic theology.

Wiloughby points out the similarities between a Bacchanalia and the Orphic rites, but notes that there are also differences. While both include the consumption of raw flesh (it appears to be that of a sacrificial bull), the Orphic rites are much less savage and view the eating of the bull’s flesh as both communion and a reenactment of what happened to god Dionysus.

In general the prescribed Orphic ritual was a modification of the rude Bacchic rites we have already examined. The persistent representation of Orpheus in antiquity was that of a reformer of Dionysiac rites. Diodorus affirmed that “Orpheus being a man highly gifted by nature and highly trained above all others, made many modifications in the orgiastic rites; hence they call Orphic those rites that took their rise from Dionysus.” From the standpoint of ritualistic observance, therefore, there was much in common between Dionysian and Orphic practices. On the very threshold to the Orphic cult stood the omophagy, or feast of raw flesh, which was so prominent a Dionysian rite. In the remaining fragment of Euripides’ Cretans an initiate tells of certain ritual acts which he performed in the process of becoming a “Bacchus” and the one he stresses particularly is the eating of raw flesh.

The last thing I wanted to point out was the Orphic doctrine against suicide. Since the soul must go through the series of reincarnations to purify itself, it is offensive to God to kill yourself without going through the necessary suffering needed to help cleanse the spirit.

At one point especially the moral influence of Orphism was clear and indubitable: that was in its protest against suicide. Since the body was the soul’s place of penance a man had no right to take his own life. If he did he was a fugitive prisoner trying to escape before God had released him. Here Plato found Orphic thought peculiarly congenial to his own. In the Phaedo he represented Socrates as saying, shortly before his death, “There is a doctrine whispered in secret that a man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door and run away; this is a great mystery which I do not quite understand. Yet I too believe that the gods are our guardians and that we are a possession of theirs.”

The whole chapter is very good and worth taking the time to read. I want to thank Symbol Reader again for the suggestion. I really got a lot out of reading this. I hope you do as well.

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“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

SecretHistoryYears ago, my good friend Sherry commented that this was possibly the best book she had read. Since she is someone whose opinions I value, I made a mental note. It took me a while, but I finally got around to reading it, and while it might not be the best book I’ve read, it was damn good!

To very briefly summarize the story (and not give any spoilers), it is about a group of college students who are focusing their studies on classicism. They are isolated from the rest of the student body and their studies are led by a single professor who is very enigmatic. One evening, some of the students decide to perform an actual Bacchanal, which has unexpected and problematic results. This starts a chain of events that is worthy of a Greek tragedy.

Ms. Tartt’s writing is impeccable. She possesses a tremendous command of language and weaves an intricate and engaging tale. It’s a long book, but there was never a moment that I found my interest waning. I was captivated from the opening pages right up until the end.

The book is written in first person narrative from the perspective of Richard Papen. Early in the book, he expresses his fascination with his studies. It is a feeling I could completely relate to, that sense of wonder and discovery, where you begin to see meaning and symbolism in everything around you.

It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together—my future, my past, the whole of my life—and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!

(p. 93)

There are many deep passages in this book, but one that stands out for me concerns the struggle between the logical and the illogical, as embodied by the Romans. During one of the lessons, Julian (the enigmatic professor) elaborates on this.

He paused. “The Roman genius, and perhaps the Roman flaw,” he said, “was an obsession with order. One sees it in their architecture, their literature, their laws—this fierce denial of darkness, unreason, chaos.” He laughed. “Easy to see why the Romans, usually tolerant of foreign religions, persecuted the Christians mercilessly—how absurd to think a common criminal had risen from the dead, how appalling that his followers celebrated him by drinking his blood. The illogic of it frightened them and they did everything they could to crush it. In fact, I think the reason they took such drastic steps was because they were not only frightened but also terribly attracted to it. Pragmatists are often strangely superstitious. For all their logic, who lived in more abject terror of the supernatural than the Romans?”

(p. 41)

I have met many people over the years who profess to be “new age seekers.” Many of these people take the view that everything spiritual is wonderful and loving. I have never been one of those. There is a light and a dark side to everything, even the spiritual. It’s part of the natural balance. To deny the existence of one is a grave mistake indeed. I would never presume to have the wisdom to judge things as either good or evil, but I recognize that there are positive and negative energies, for lack of a better description, and one must learn to interact with both.

Another thing about this passage that is spot on is how people can be both frightened and attracted to something simultaneously. We see it still today and I suspect that it is this innate part of humans that is the root of the polarization we are seeing in society and politics. In order to defend our paradigms, we feel the need to attack whoever embodies the opposite, and the most fervent are often those who secretly long for that which they oppose.

Of course, though, for me, it was the description of the mystical experience achieved during the Bacchanal that was the most moving part of the book. Capturing the essence of a mystical experience in mere words is daunting, to say the least. The description here, although fiction, is powerful.

“It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye, entire years for all I know . . . I mean, we think of phenomenal change as being the very essence of time, when it’s not at all. Time is something which defies spring and winter, birth and decay, the good and the bad, indifferently. Something changeless and joyous and absolutely indestructible. Duality ceases to exist; there is no ego, no “I,” and yet it’s not at all like those horrid comparisons one sometimes hears in Eastern religions, the self being a drop of water swallowed by the ocean of the universe. It’s more like the universe expands to fill the boundaries of the self. You have no idea how pallid the workday boundaries of ordinary existence seem, after such an ecstasy. It was like being a baby. I couldn’t remember my name. The soles of my feet were cut to pieces and I couldn’t even feel it.”

(pp. 167 – 168)

That is the dark side of the mystical experience: how can one return to pallid, ordinary existence after experiencing divine ecstasy? It is easy to see why people go down that rabbit hole and never come back.

As Henry, one of Richard’s fellow students, continues to relate details of the experience, Richard questions whether Henry truly believed that he saw Dionysus, to which Henry replies:

“What if you had never seen the sea before? What if the only thing you’d ever seen was a child’s picture—blue crayon, choppy waves? Would you know the real sea if you only knew the picture? Would you be able to recognize the real thing even if you saw it? You don’t know what Dionysus looks like. We’re talking about God here. God is serious business.”

(p. 168)

As I said earlier, this book is excellent. I highly recommend it. It is well-written, thought-provoking, and the story itself is compelling. I know that Ms. Tartt has written a couple other books since this one. I feel pretty certain that I will be reading more of her works in the future.

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