Tag Archives: Proclus

“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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“All Religions Are One” by William Blake

As a change of pace today, I took a look at my old copy of Blake’s Poetry and Designs, and in a time when people seem to be fighting about which religion is the one true religion, this piece called out to me.

I feel that the first line is a subtitle and deserves a closer look: “The Voice of one crying in the Wilderness.” Voice and Wilderness are both capitalized which signals that they represent something larger. The Voice appears to represent the Poetic Genius which Blake claims to be “the true Man.” He continues by asserting that “the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic
Genius. Likewise that the forms of all things are derived from
their Genius, which by the Ancients was call’d an Angel & Spirit
& Demon.” Blake appears to be referring to the Platonic concept of the forms, particularly as expressed by Plotinus and Proclus, who asserted that all that exists were emanated from the divine source. Personally, I feel that Blake is also drawing on the imagery of Adam Kadmon, which, according to Jewish mysticism, was the divine form from which God created the first human. Finally, the Voice of the Poetic Genius could be interpreted as the Divine Consciousness that is within all of us.

So then what is the Wilderness? On one level, the Wilderness could be seen as the material plane on which we exist. But I suspect that there is more. I see the Wilderness as a representation of the darker side of our internal psyche, our baser selves which keep us from acknowledging the divinity that exists within all of us. Trapped inside of us is the Voice, screaming to be recognized and to move to the forefront of our being. For me, this is the essence of what Blake was expressing.

In Principle 5, Blake writes: “The Religions of all Nations are derived from
each Nations different reception of the Poetic Genius.” What a great line!! This is so true. One of the most influential books I read as a teenager was The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley. If you have not read this book, I strongly recommend that you do. In this book, Huxley breaks religion into categories such as truth, faith, suffering, and so forth. He then includes quotes from various religious texts to show that the same message is being taught by each text. Essentially, every religious text contains kernels of divine wisdom, just presented in a different manner for different audiences. This is what Blake brilliantly expresses in one single line.

On my personal quest, I keep myself open to knowledge and ideas, regardless of the source. To assume that any one book, writer, or religion has a monopoly on Truth and Wisdom is about as foolish an idea as any. I hope that you all will read widely and with an open mind. You can start by clicking here to read Blake’s piece online.

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