Orpheus. Music & Transcendence. The Musician / Bard. In a society without writing -- history, cultural knowledge and sacred stories were preserved in poetry. People with the capacity for remembering and performing song – bards – were honored.
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Music & Transcendence
In a society without writing -- history, cultural knowledge and sacred stories were preserved in poetry.
People with the capacity for remembering and performing song –bards – were honored.
Poets often claimed divine inspiration, to explain their gift and its truthfulness.
Homer and Hesiod, whose works (?) are preserved, were heroes.
Orpheus, a mythic poet, was regarded as greater still.
As he made his pleas and sang these words to the tune of his lyre, the bloodless spirits wept; Tantalus stopped reaching for the receding waters, the wheel of Ixion stopped in wonder, the vultures stopped tearing at the liver of Tityus, and you, O Sisyphus, sat on your stone. Then for the first time, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears, and Hades and Persephone could not endure his pleas or their refusal.
Orpheus was the child of either Apollo or a Thracian river-god; his mother was a Muse. Eurydice was a Dryad (tree-nymph). They fell in love and got married BUT . . .
On their wedding day she was killed by a snake-bite, and went down into Hades.
Refusing to accept her death, Orpheus went after her, singing his pleas for her release to Hades and Persephone.
Orpheus is told to walk back up to the living world and not look back; Eurydice will follow him. But . . .
Not far from the border of the world, frightened that she might not be well and yearning to see her with his own eyes, through love he turned and looked, and with his gaze she slipped away and down. He stretched out his arms, struggling to embrace and be embraced, but he grasped nothing but the limp and yielding breezes.
In another story, his Thracian countrymen kill him because of his teachings.
The most common version is that he is killed by Maenads.
Depressed and uncaring of the rest of the world, Orpheus goes back to Thrace and loses himself in his music – and in mystical discoveries and teachings.
The next thing we hear about is that he dies, dramatically – but who kills him and why?
In one tradition, Zeus strikes him down with a thunderbolt for daring to teach sacred mysteries.
For you, Orpheus, the trees let fall their leaves and shorn of foliage made lament. They say too that the rivers swelled with their own tears . . . His limbs lie scattered in various places; the river Hebrus got his head and lyre, and while they floated in midstream, the lyre made some plaintive lamentations, and the lifeless tongue murmurred laments too, and the banks cried out in reply.
In Hades, Orpheus and Eurydice meet again:
Here now they walk together side by side, and he safely now looks back at his Eurydice. (Ovid)
Orpheus is the central figure of a mystery religion, whose secrecy leaves us little to go on.
While bards and the lyre are associated with Apollo, Orpheus is also strongly associated with Dionysus through Thrace and the Maenads.
The creation story associated with his mysteries focuses on the figure of Zagreus, aka Dionysus.
Apollo’s poetry & prophecy, and Dionysus’ maenadic ecstasy, all show connection with irrational, intuitive forms of wisdom.
Orphic religion apparently explored alternative ways of knowing about life & afterlife.
The Orphic creation story:
Chronus (time), the first element, fashioned an egg which split to reveal . . .
Eros/Phanes, who with his daughter Night gave created everything.
Zeus swallowed Phanes and all creation, and created it anew.
With Persephone, he fathered Dionysus.
Dionysus was dismembered and eaten by the Titans, who were then destroyed by Zeus’s thunderbolt.
The heart of Dionysus was saved and he was reborn.
Humans were created from the ashes of the Titans – naturally bad, but imbued with Dionysus’ divine spark.
Orphism was one of many mystery religions which flourished in the Greek and Roman worlds, esp. 300 BCE- 300 CE.
Orphics apparently believed in:
Transmigration of the soul (reincarnation)
Keeping a pure lifestyle while on earth (including vegetarianism)
A final reuniting with the divine spirit in the upper world (rather than death in the underworld)
Isis was a popular Mystery deity
Isis sanctuary, where sacred dramas were performed.
In the Greek and Roman worlds, many mystery religions offered spiritual enlightenment and personal relationship with the deity through initiation and secret knowledge.
“Like Christianity, they gave the individual worshipper hope for a better life in an uncertain world and frequently the expectation of new life after death”
The worship of Isis, like many mystery religions (and modern New Age beliefs), builds on existing traditions and looks for universality and personal meaning.
In Apuleius’ Golden Ass, the hero is saved by the goddess:
Behold, Lucius, I have come, moved by your prayers. I am the mother of things in nature, the mistress of all the elements, the firstborn of the ages, the sum of the divine powers, queen of the souls of the dead, first of the heavenly powers, the single form of the gods and goddesses, who by my nod control the bright heights of heaven, the health-bringing powers of the sea, the grievous silence of the gods of the underworld. My name, one with many forms, varied rituals, and many names, is revered by the whole world.
Like Isis, and even more central in the Greek world, Orpheus remained a vital figure in myth, cult, and intellectual configuring of the meaning of life.