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Ronnie Pontiac

Orpheus and Counterculture

Rodin’s Orpheus and Eurydice

Vegetarian, non-violent, a singer and string strummer, a poet, a broken hearted lover, traveller to other worlds, not just on the first tour bus in western history, the Argo, but also beyond death, to the world of gods and ghosts.  Straights snickered that he was not only effeminate but the first guy to go gay in Greece.  So if you do it Greek, you’re doing it Orpheus.  But his fans say all the wisdom in the world is in his songs.  If you know how to listen, if you get the music, if you understand the symbolism of the lyrics, all the secrets of life and death are revealed. This cat, Orpheus, was he the first hipster? As befits the first rock star in history, frenzied groupies ripped him apart, the way you always imagined would happen if those mobs of fans had ever caught up with The Beatles.  The head of Orpheus went on singing, like the hit singles of dead teen idols, and the hologram of Tupac.

It would not be an overstatement to describe the Orphic literature as the grow light for western cultural renaissance.  Wherever the writing and themes of Orphism found their way into the lives of composers, painters, musicians, philosophers, and mystics a flowering of spirituality and the arts followed.

For generations historians believed that western civilization began in ancient Greece.  Today historians have the evidence to support the testimony of the ancient Greeks themselves, that other cultures, especially the ancient Egyptian, gave Greece important inspiration and key ideas about religion.  But thanks to the works of Plato and Aristotle, the comedies of Aristophanes and the tragedies of Aeschylus in many ways we can still view ancient Greece as the flashpoint where the inferno of the western world began.  We can also look to Greece for the earliest known significant counterculture in western history.


The name Orpheus first appears in a fragment from the sixth century BC by the poet Ibykus: “famous Orpheus.”  Homer and Hesiod never mention him but Pindar (circa 500 BC) calls him “father of songs”.  Aristotle denied there ever was a real Orpheus.  Some scholars have offered a list of five men by that name, none any more substantial than the mythic Orpheus.

What can his name tell us?  The -eus ending is mostly associated with ancient Greece before Homer.  Historian Martin Bernal suggests Orpheus derives from Orpais, the ancient Greek transcription of the Egyptian word for hereditary prince.  Bernal believes Orpheus is how the Greek’s interpreted the ancient Egyptian earth god Geb, though the two don’t seem to have that much in common in the myths that survive to us

White Goddess obsessed historian Robert Graves, author of the wonderful I, Claudius, thought the name a reference to the river bank, like Bran the Blessed, King of the Island of the Mighty.  Graves believed that the lyre Orpheus plucks was a later addition.  A reed flute, made from the reeds of the river bank, was the original instrument of Orpheus.  Related words in ancient Greek refer to the dark of murky night (orphnaios) , the color brownish gray mixed from black and a little white and red (orphinus), or orphan (orphanos).  So the name Orpheus tells us little we can depend on.

Myth gives us two glimpses of him.  The musician on the Argo whose music is stronger than the song of the sirens, when he plays fish jump from the sea and birds hover in flocks.  When the heroes at sea too long begin to bicker amongst themselves Orpheus ends the trouble with a song about the creation of the world.  As their oars churn the sea his music urges them to epic efforts.  Wherever the heroes on the Argo go they establish cults, with Orpheus providing musical rites.  We wonder what stone he used to prevent sea-sickness when he sailed.

But ancient Greeks chuckled because Orpheus wouldn’t enter the contest for singers of hymns, competition in sacred matters being impure according to him. Was he a coward? His sensitivity seemed a bit precious to people who worshipped gods who reveled in competition, like the tug of war in The Iliad between Zeus and all the other gods (Zeus won).

The other glimpse of Orpheus in myth is the more famous today, but was much less interesting to the ancient Greeks.  Orpheus was to marry his love Eurydice.  But on their wedding day she was attacked by a satyr.  Fleeing his unwanted advances she fell into a nest of vipers.  Orpheus turned the world to tears as he sang his grief.  The weeping gods advised him to go to the underworld to try for a miracle.

So Orpheus descended into the world of the dead.  In Homer the ghosts like so many flickering shadows were drawn to the blood sacrifice from which they drew enough strength to speak.  But it is the song of Orpheus that draws the souls of the dead in droves.  Not even the gods of the underworld could resist his song.  But what an awkward moment!  The queen of the underworld, Persephone, is only there because her husband Hades abducted her.  Her marriage began with rape.  How could she deny Orpheus his wish?  This virgin Eurydice fleeing a rapist would have reminded Persephone of herself.

The Romans liked to paint Hades as the skeptic in the situation, the only one unmoved by the song.  But Persephone changes his mind.  Hades a shrewd judge of human character has one last sadistic trick up his sleeve.  Orpheus must not look back.  He must have faith that Hades will be good to his word.  But Orpheus can’t stand it.  He feels the presence of his lost Eurydice there just behind him.  He’s afraid Hades has cheated him.  Plato suggested Hades sent a ghost to impersonate Eurydice, to further shame this impudent mortal.  Orpheus reaches the sunlight but instead of waiting, with faith for his lover’s touch, he turns to see she has not yet emerged from shadow.  Now she is lost to him forever.

On a mountain top, heartbroken Orpheus sang songs to the sun at dawn.  The Thracian men left their wives to study with him.  In revenge the women tore Orpheus apart,  Or mad maenads ritually executed Orpheus for tampering with the rites of Dionysus.  They tore his head off.  Trees shed their leaves.  The floating head, softly singing, passed weeping animals on a weeping river under a weeping sky.  It floated to Lesbos, a large island in the Aegean Sea along the coast of Asia Minor.  Lesbos, with high mountains and wide bays, exported corn, wine and oil.  Here Sappho reinvented lyric poetry and Terpander revolutionized music.  At Lesbos, Apollo saved the head of Orpheus.  Its tomb became a famous oracle of the dead.  The nightingales that nested there were said to sing especially sweetly.

So much for the Orpheus of pure myth.  But the life of Orpheus only begins with those vignettes.  Now begins the translation of the myth into philosophical literature and low brow ritual for hire.  Now begins his long life in paintings and sculptures, in poems and fiction, his reoccurring inspiration to generation after generation of artists.


What did ancient writers have to say about Orpheus?  The following translations are mine unless otherwise noted, I found Guthrie’s the most valuable of the various translations I consulted before making my own.

Apollonius of Rhodes, author of the epic Argonautica, about Jason and the Argonauts, including Orpheus, wrote circa 300 BC: “After devoting his youth to education he learned stories about the Gods.  Then he went to Egypt, where he furthered his education and became the greatest man among the Greeks, for his knowledge of the Gods, and for his poems and songs.  And because he so loved his wife he dared the amazing deed of descending into Hades where he enchanted Persephone with his song and convinced her to help him bring his wife back to Earth.”

About two hundred years after that, in 30 B.C, the historian from Sicily Diodorus wrote some time during the reigns of the Caesars Julius and Augustus: “I will say something about him.  Dionysos gave gleaming eyed Charops the kingdom of Thrace and the rites of Initiation.  Oiagros inherited the kingdom and the rites and passed them onto his son Orpheus.  Orpheus, by training and natural gifts, was exceptional; he made many changes in the rites.  For this reason the Initiations that were given by Dionysos came to be called Orphic.  Orpheus is in culture, music and poetry easily the best of those we remember; he wrote astonishing, dulcet poetry.  They said he could move trees and animals with his song.  He studied long.  He learned to understand the myths of religion.  Then he lived in Egypt where he learned so much more and so became the Greek expert on religion, ceremony, music and poetry.  He was an Argonaut.  For love of his wife he descended into Hades where he so charmed Persephone with his music she agreed to help him bring his wife back like another Dionysus, for they say Dionysus raised his other Semele back to life from Hades.”

The Roman poets Virgil circe 50 BC and Ovid circa 1 AD recast the story of Orpheus with an emphasis on the tragic love story and especially the backward glance.  But Ovid also blamed Orpheus for introducing homosexuality to Greece because of a song he sang about a red-lipped boy on the ship Argos.

Also during the reign of Augustus, as the first millennium began, Conon the myth collector of Capadocia, a Greek province in what is now Turkey, wrote: “In the old days prophets played music.  Orpheus, the son of Oiagros, and of the Muse Calliope, was king of the Macedonians and Odyrsai.  He was skilled in music, especially the lyre.  Since Thracians and Macedonians love music, they favored him.  He was torn to pieces by the women of Thrace and Macedonia because he would not let them join his rites,  Or it may have been for another reason, for they say he hated women after the death of his wife.  On certain days a crowd of armed Thracians and Macedonians would gather in a big temple at the Leibethra, the city on the Macedonian side of Mount Olympus.  They would lay their weapons down before entering.  The angry women took the swords.  They killed anyone who tried to overpower them.  They tore Orpheus to pieces and threw the pieces into the sea.  They did not repent, so plague struck.  An oracle told them to find the head of Orpheus and respectfully bury it.  A fisherman finally showed it to them at the mouth of the river Meles.  It was singing and had suffered no violence or decay; it was fresh and had the bloom of blood in it.  They buried it under a great mound and fenced off the place.  First a hero shrine, it grew into a temple.  No woman may set foot in it.”

Orpheus became a popular decorating theme in ancient Rome, the musical emperor Nero owned glossy red trays depicting him.  The face of Orpheus decorated jewelry, mirrors, plates, villa walls, villa floors, in paint and mosaic, his gaze always turned to the sky.


Theophrastus is never so well remembered as his teachers Plato and Aristotle, but his book The Characters deserves to be.  It’s gritty portraits of the various moralities of humans has much in common with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Celine.  He paints an unflattering picture of the followers of Orpheus: “The Superstitious Man is the kind who washes his hands in three springs, sprinkles himself with water from a temple font, puts a laurel leaf in his mouth, and then is ready for the day’s perambulations.  If a weasel runs across his path he will not proceed on his journey until someone else has covered the ground or he has thrown three stones over the road. … If a mouse nibbles through a bag of barley, he goes to the expounder of sacred law and asks what he should do; and if the answer is that he should give it to the tanner to sew up he disregards the advice and performs an apotropaic sacrifice.  He is apt to purify his house frequently, claiming it is haunted by Hekate. … He refuses to step on a tombstone or go near a dead body or a woman in childbirth, saying that he cannot afford to risk contamination. … When he has a dream he visits not only dream-analysts but also seers and bird-watchers to ask which god or goddess he should pray to.  He makes a monthly visit to the Orphic ritualists to take the sacrament, accompanied by his wife (or if she is busy, the nurse) and his children.” (tr. By Bennett and Hammond)

Just as Kerouac and Whitman claimed holy revelation for their torrents of writing, recasting the known world from a new point of view, reversing long established models, and bringing light to previously dark corners, so too could the Orphic walk amongst men with the burning eyes of the visionary who sees past the preoccupations of everyone else’s ambitions and desires, like a lucid dreamer, smiling at the phantoms so busy with their phantasms: the essence of counter culture.

In ancient Greece all citizens could claim at least a distant relation to the founding heroes of their cultures, but only the finest families could claim direct descent from heroes and rulers.  Yet even the most humble families would have some claim to fame based on an ancestor who did something well enough to be remembered by the collective.  Although not strictly speaking a caste system all these inherited hierarchies and categories must have been smothering for many.  Since only the rich and powerful could afford the best funeral arrangements even death wouldn’t free the citizen from his state.  But the Orphics introduced something radical into the social equation.  By becoming an Orphic mystic, a magus, and/or an initiate, or at least by hiring one to entertain you for awhile, by practicing purification, or buying it and including in the grave the expensive item recommended, any humble joker could walk right by the fools drinking the water of forgetfulness and find him or herself seated next to a hero at the table of the god of the underworld.

Euripides the great tragic playwright of ancient Greece had something to say about the followers of Orpheus circa 450 BC.  “Boast all you want!  Show off your vegetarian food!  Call Orpheus lord!  Practice Bacchic rituals of ecstasy and revere your foggy scriptures!  I’m on to you.  I say to everyone: beware these men!  Hiding shameful schemes they hunt their prey with holy books!”

Euripides portrays an example of the Orphic type in Hippolytus, first prize winner of the competition of 428 B.C.  Hippolytus is the son of the queen of the Amazons.  He’s devoted to the chaste goddess Artemis; he’s even taken a vow of chastity.  He’s openly contemptuous of Aphrodite.  In revenge the goddess of love inspires his stepmother to fall in love so hopelessly with Hippolytus she starves herself hoping to at least die with her honor intact.  When he finds out about this unrequited love Hippolytus rants about how poisonous women are.  His stepmother, believing her shame was now public knowledge, hangs herself, but leaves a note that seems to incriminate Hippolytus.  His father, Theseus slayer of the Minotaur, believes his son tried to force himself on his stepmother.  Everyone blames Hippolytus, even his own grandfather Poseidon, who causes a chariot accident that kills the innocent young man.  Artemis explains the truth.  Hippolytus forgives his father with his last breath.  But why does Euripides have Theseus curse Hippolytus for calling Orpheus his lord?  Hippolytus isn’t a member of the Orphic community, but Hippolytus has the Orphic attitude, he is counter culture.

It’s a seductive thing for scholars to find theories in scanty evidence, and some of the most important theories about Orphism originated when there were many less artifacts to study.  Much has been lost to fire, to vandalism, and all the other means of destruction at time’s disposal, especially during the dark ages when destroying pagan relics was considered virtuous.

Scholars have argued for centuries about the Orphics and their mysteries.  Some imagined Orphism as a proto-Protestant religion, a virtuous reaction against the Roman Catholic-like extravagant idolatry of Olympian and Homeric religious traditions with their colossal ivory and gold statues of Zeus and other celebrations of worldly power.  Others followed Plato and Euripides, dismissing the Orphics as so many spiritual vagabonds hustling fake books said to be from the pen of Orpheus.  Offering silly entertainments as purifications and initiations they promised a better afterlife to gullible clients.  Plutarch reports what happened when one such priest for hire approached a Spartan king.  Spartans were renowned for their silence, and for their snappy and brief comebacks, they were the insult comics of ancient Greece, like Leonidas who responded to the Persian threat of arrows blotting out the sun with the famous punch-line: “Then we’ll fight in the shade.”  So what did the Spartan king say to the skinny, raggedy wandering priest who claimed he could confer initiations that would guarantee happiness after death? “What are you waiting for?”

And what are we to make of the teletai?  Nothing more than fake rituals peddled by frauds pretending to be religious experts?  Were they rituals practiced by solitary mystics or mysteries experienced by crowds of initiates?  The famous Hymns of Orpheus are really the Teletai of Orpheus.  Hymns isn’t the ideal word to translate the ancient Greek word teletai.  Ritual, initiation, marriage, bearing fruit in season, ripening fruit to perfection, magical potency, and finishing are all possible definitions.

The Derveni papyrus is an allegorical commentary on Orphic ideas from the time of Plato, and the earliest surviving book in Europe.  It includes the striking image of the god Uranos ejaculating all the stars into the sky.  The author considers himself an expert on esoteric matters and he’s quite intolerant of his less ethical and scientific competitors.  As Edmonds writes: “…the Derveni author denigrates, not the practice of teletai, the offering of sacrifices, or the consultation of oracles, but rather the inferior way in which others perform these religious acts.”

Chrysippos, the Stoic philosopher from Cilicia, east of Syria c 280 BC defined them as writings about divine matters.  Certainly a book can be a religious initiation, as the Holy Bible, Koran and Gita prove.

In the 20th century the climate of scholarship changed.  Christian agendas, and the influence of growing up in Christian culture, were carefully removed from the process of assessing non-Christian cultures.  New tools of scholarship allowed neutral examination of what had long been emotionally charged areas of study.  Historians began to wonder if Orphism had ever really been a movement at all.  The long list of allegedly Orphic relics and remains was dismantled and decommissioned until almost nothing remained.

The Orphic battle in academia still rages with able champions on both sides.  Bernabe makes a persuasive argument for restoring babies tossed out with the bath water, and Edmonds III is equally persuasive reminding us that however suggestive the evidence in possible contexts, examination of the individual parts reveals just how problematic it is to identify them as Orphic at all.  Edmonds writes: “Orphism was not a single unified Church, but is best understood as a collection of diverse counter-cultural religious movements whose major proponents were itinerant “craftsmen” of purification who provided services for a wide variety of customers.” But there were ancient skeptics as well.  “I would have known of any songs of Orpheus, if any there are…” wrote Apollonius of Tyana, the Pythagorean philosopher who complained about being put in the same category as magi and Orphics.  A rival to Jesus, he was supposed to have stopped a riot with his silent presence.

Orphic may have been a catch all phrase in ancient Greece for anything neither Homeric nor Olympian.  The phrase could be a generic category for a cluster of related interests, like “new age” in our own culture.  But no one can deny that the world view had shifted from one where fragile humans who experienced suffering wondered which god or goddess they had offended to one where an immortal soul was caught in materiality, literally encased in a body.  Aristotle may not have been an Orphic in much, but he was when he described the angst of soul in body to be like that of the Etruscan pirate torture of tying a captive face to face with a corpse.  “Soma sema” was the famous Orphic saying, the body a tomb or cave or prison, but sema also refers to a sign or a mark, or as Gregory Nagy called it a “coded message.”  In Plato’s Cratylus, Socrates guesses at the origin of the word for body suggesting it may come from tomb or to imprison.

With the death of Orpheus at the hands of frenzied women the Orphic myth draws a clear line of demarcation between past and future.  In the past we celebrated delirious ecstasy and the mania of possession in the rites of Dionysus, and we gladly sacrificed animals as part of our civic and religious duty, but now we understand that the sacrificed animal may have contained the soul of a human being once dear to us in another incarnation, and we also understand that madness can only lead to excess, as it did in the slaying of Orpheus.  A new more civilized vision of the mysteries of Dionysus was born.  The religion of the hunters was transformed into the religion of citizens.  Apollo could not be praised with blood and guts.  Apollo the symbol of purity and intellectual light required a more civilized spiritual practice.  Oracles, music, philosophy, the use of reason to understand and master the world, replaced atavistic frenzy in the forest.

Orphism existed for centuries, and so may have represented different types of organizations at different times, so how can some sort of organized Orphic mysteries be completely ruled out?  Plutarch, the great pagan biographer of the first Christian century, called himself an initiate of the Orphic mysteries.  However he didn’t agree with every aspect of them.  He thought the warning about horrific hells awaiting the unjust was vulgar, and he thought morbid the constant self examination and self denial of the Orphic way of life.  Yet he reported the consolation the mysteries gave him and his wife when facing life’s most difficult challenges.

Plutarch describes in the beginning “nervous journeys” in the dark, exhausted running here and there, until “shivering and trembling,” having found no way out, facing death a “marvelous light” meets you and you’re welcomed into meadows and open country, where people dance and sing of holy things.  When Plutarch wrote of “sacred visions” he caused controversy as some scholars suggest the great biographer was tripping.  Others believe sophisticated machinery helped create theatrical presentations that may or may not have been understood to be dramatizations rather than manifestations, or hallucinations.

We don’t know what took place in the Orphic rites.  Speculation is all we really have.  Initiation may have started with a long wait in a torchlit cavern with walls painted to show all the suffering of life from realistic portrayals of wounds and diseases to the ravages of age and natural disasters.  For people who had no television or books to flood their worlds with such imagery, who had only their personal experiences, or lack of experience, to go by, these must have been startling scenes.  The message was, as Jim Morrison put it a couple thousand years later: “no one in here gets out alive.”

Thronosis was a part of the initiation process, according to some scholars, but what exactly was it?  As with so much of ancient Greek culture, the answer depends on which city state you’re asking about.  In the Eleusinian Mysteries it’s likely the initiation began with a long sit on a stool with a death shroud over your head.  As Demeter was said to have sat in sorrow on a stool after the news of Persephone’s abduction.   Were you to contemplate mortality and mourn for your lost ones, for yourself, for the whole sick sad world, perhaps?  Meanwhile in the Korybantic Mysteries men with chalk on their faces, warriors dressed as titans, danced in a frenzy around the candidate for initiation who must have endured a terrifying few moments wondering just how far the reenactment of the dismembering of Zagreus (Dionysus) was going to go.  Rumors of cannibalism among the mad followers of the God of Mt. Nysa must have left some aspiring initiates wondering if they were going to wind up in a stew.

Jane Harrison, who was the first female professional scholar in Great Britain, argued that a wheel was involved in the Orphic mysteries.  The German scholar Dr. Eisler tried to prove that Christ on the cross had been inspired by the use of a wheel in the Orphic mysteries.  Initiates, he suggested, may have been tied to a wheel, and spun so they could feel the dizzy helplessness of repeated reincarnation in helplessness.  But these are considered flights of fancy, not scholarship.  The current compromise vision of what Orphism might have been no longer includes the Orphic Mysteries as a religious institution.  Instead we have something closer to the New England Transcendentalists, or the Elizabethan intellectuals: the Pythagoreans.


The horror of killing was dawning on a society that had celebrated warriors.  Animal sacrifice and the murder of fellow humans were no longer acceptable.  According to King Nestor in the Iliad the golden age for the Homeric Greeks were the days when warriors greater than Achilles and Odysseus walked the Earth.  After the influence alleged to be the creation of Orpheus the golden age became instead a time when sacrificing animals was a sin and all human beings were vegetarians.  Since once human souls can incarnate as animals eating meat becomes cannibalism.

Pythagoras deserves his own blog.  His theorem and tetractys are better respected today than the way of life he taught or his philosophy of numbers.  He was a revered teacher, a man who left the world crucial first steps in the science and geometry of music, higher mathematics, philosophy and religion.  Only the upper class had the time to devote to understanding this new way of seeing the world so the Pythagorean Society was an aristocratic affair.  Their fellow citizens were intrigued by the faultless ethics and enlightening ideas of these visionaries so they were invited into politics where they were embraced as reformers.

But the early Pythagoreans were attacked circa 500 BC by Cylon, a local noble who was so infuriated that he was rejected by the Pythagorean Society he tried to kill them all.  Some say that’s when Pythagoras died, another version of his death is by suicide in exile, but Iamblichus the great Neoplatonist in his Life of Pythagoras dismisses the attack by Cylon as a minor event greatly exaggerated.  Pythagoras, he says, returned home and the society flourished.  Did the myth of Orpheus become confused with his follower Pythagoras, so Pythagoras was said to have died at the hands of irate enemies, like Orpheus killed by the frenzied female worshippers of Dionysus?

Pythagorean practices were hardly radical from the 21st century point of view.  One that people today might find useful is the Pythagorean recollection, the reflection on the events of the day, as you lay before sleep.  Going backwards moment to moment, examining what could have been done differently, how better outcomes could have been achieved, improvements can be made in character and action.

No scholar can miss the similarities between the beliefs of the Pythagoreans and the Orphics.  Both forbade the sacrifice of animals and detest meat eating.  Both taught non-violence.  Both used music to illustrate abstract philosophical and mathematical concepts.  Both taught reincarnation, and the importance of purity, when facing the after life.  Ion of Chios, around (450 B.C.) the friend of Aeschylus (whom Cicero called a Pythagorean) and rival of Eurpides in Athens, was author of a Pythagorean text.  His blunt opinion was that: “Pythagoras wrote some poems and ascribed then to Orpheus.”  Later writers provided names of Italian Pythagoreans who were identified as authors of specific books attributed to Orpheus.  Was this a long standing oral tradition finally committed to writing, or a spurious invention?  We’ll never know.

Timing is everything when it comes to new means of distribution.  Elvis became such a superstar partly because he arrived just in time to take advantage of the fact that girls and young people in general for the first time had record players they could use in the privacy of their bedrooms.  Do I regret that my band said no when Myspace.com asked us to be one of the first bands they would feature.  No.  But I also didn’t realize that within a mere few months they would become the dominant way to get music, for a short while.  Well, Orpheus was the Elvis of books, back when books where the new thing in ancient Greece.

As Detienne writes: “The literate initiates of Orphism became the champions of books but at the same time rejected the world, setting up for themselves a secret library that revolved around Orpheus’ unique voice.

By signing the name of Orpheus to their own books these ancient authors claimed for their words the direct authority of someone whose ideas about the gods were deep, pure and holy.  To bring up Orpheus when praising justice,  was acceptable in the courts of Classical Athens, as proven by the speech against Aristogiton by the great Athenian orator Demosthenes.  After all, Orpheus was said to have been the founder of many mysteries throughout Greece including the most sacred, the Eleusinian.

Perhaps Pythagoreans wrote poems about cosmology and the meaning of life and signed them Orpheus  in imitation of the Egyptian scribes who never signed their own names, only the name of Thoth, the Ibis headed god of scribes.  Like the other great literary and artistic movements of western civilization this alleged Pythagorean literary circle set out to change the way their readers viewed the quality and meaning of life.  What they didn’t expect was the rise of a class of itinerant priests using their books and forgeries aplenty to sell rituals and charms to wealthy widows and nervous sick old men who never had the time to lead the philosophical life Pythagoras preached.  Evidence from c. 500 BC proves private mysteries were being practiced apart from organized religion.  But some sincere Pythagoreans remained.  The Athenians, who still prized their oral histories, were suspicious of this literate elite that turned up their noses at ambition and excitement, preparing themselves for death before they died.  Why, they refused to eat meat!

But where did Pythagoras get his education?  Was he a spontaneous genius?  Herodotus (c.450 B.C.) says succinctly that the Orphic and Bacchic mysteries were actually Pythagorean, which is to say Egyptian.  The Egyptian Book of the Dead certainly resembles in tone and content the fragments we have from the Orphic golden leaves.  In both cases the living would read the texts and bury them with the dead like a guidebook to the afterlife.  Writing not much later the Athenian master of rhetoric Isocrates (c.400 B.C.) agrees that the Pythagoreans were inspired by Egyptian religious beliefs.

So were the Orphics and the Orphic mysteries the invention of the Pythagoreans?  Bernabe has compared Orphic studies to Penelope weaving daily only to undo her weave every night.  No simple answers can be depended on when studying the ways of Orpheus.  For example, Iamblichus the great Syrian Neoplatonist author and ritualist insists: “Pythagoras was taught by the disciples of Orpheus.”


Attic vase painters portrayed Orpheus as a civilized Greek charming spear wielding Thracian hillbillies in gaudy embroidered cloaks and pointy fox skin caps.  Thrace and Macedonia were the highlands of ancient Greece.  Thracians originated the worship of Ares, god of war, Artemis the quick slaying huntress, and Dionysus, god of wine.  They wore their hair long and decorated themselves with extensive tattoos.  They loved drinking, music, and dancing.  They set out food for sea eagles.  They bred, trained and rode horses so well they might be the source for the myth of the half man half horse centaurs.  Thracian women were fierce warriors, possibly the source of the Amazon myth.  Thracian men were legendary for marching into battle drunk.  Snowy Thrace was known as the Land of Prophets.  Spartacus was Thracian.

Today in Bulgaria, in the area that was once Thrace, Orpheus has a statue, his lyre appears on many signs, streets are named after him, along with restaurants and resorts.  He even has a tomb.  The local archeologists claim him as a Thracian king c. 2000 BC who was killed before he could accomplish his goal of bringing peace to warring tribes.  On Amazon you’ll pay a pretty penny for Ivo Papasov and his Bulgarian Wedding Band’s Orpheus Ascending (don’t laugh he’s got more youTube hits than you do).  It’s intriguing that Egyptian scarab beetle charms were found in ruins from Thrace.

But then the Athenians claimed that they hosted the first Orphic mysteries.  And then there’s Crete, hardly considered Greek by many ancient Greeks, with their outlandish bare breasted women and young people showing off by leaping over the horns of bulls like gold medal gymnasts.  In Crete, Orpheus was sometimes depicted with the head of a bird, playing his lyre, attracting birds from the sky.  “Clothed all in white I flee mortal birth and avoiding the place of corpses I guard myself against eating ensouled flesh,” Euripides had his chorus of mystics from Crete sing, sounding rather Orphic.

In this translation by Charles Oldfather and Yannis Tzifopoulos, Diodorus of Sicily said the mysteries may have begun in Crete, or reached Greece from there.  “–the initiatory rite which is celebrated by the Athenians in Eleusis, the most famous, one may venture, of them all, and that of Samothrace, and the one practiced in Thrace among the Cicones, which Orpheus introduced–these are all handed down in the form of a mystery, whereas at Knossos in Crete it has been the custom from ancient times that these initiatory rites should be handed down to all openly–.”  Of course, that doesn’t mean the mysteries in Crete couldn’t have been inspired by the ancient Egyptians.

Meanwhile, Diodorus also said Orpheus studied magic with The Dactyls, a mythic race who discovered how to work with metals, when they arrived in Samo-Thrace they frightened the locals with their spells and mysteries.  They were the founders of Goetia, a way of singing that bridges the worlds of the living and the dead.  The term, much later, in the underbelly of Christianity, became associated with grimoires concerned with ritual evocations of angels and demons, and black magic.  A dactyl was founder of the Olympic Games.

Butterworth in his iconoclastic obscure classic The Tree at the Navel of the Earth shared his provocative theory that The Odyssey records the Homeric Olympian reaction to the invasion of eastern mysticism.  The cyclops satirizes the third eye of the cave dwelling sages who renounced life among mortals.  The lotus eaters represent cults who practice spiritual ecstasy, like the Orphics.  And wicked Circe was a teacher of sexual mysteries as well as a witch who turned men into pigs.  Odysseus representing the good old fashioned Olympian ideal outsmarts them all because ultimately his way of life is life affirming, while theirs turns away from life as they prepare themselves for the supposedly greater rewards of death.

Experts on ancient music wonder if Orpheus performed chromatic scales and quarter tones, a lute more like a sitar in sound.  The parallels between the Orphic path and the yogic are articulated by Joseph Campbell in a paragraph thorny with Sanskrit: “a system both of thought and practice, exactly paralleling that of Indian asceticism, was communicated by initiated masters to little circles of devotees.  The soul, it was declared, returned repeatedly to life, bound to the wheel of rebirth (compare the Sanskrit samsara).  Through asceticism (Sanskrit, tapas), however, the body could be purged of its Titan dross (Sanskrit, mirjara, ‘shedding’) and the soul released (Sanskrit, moksha, ‘release’).  Also, rituals fostering meditation on the godly factor were of help (Sanskrit, bhakti, ‘devotion’).  And when, at last, in rapture (samadhi), the initiate cleaved to his own intrinsic being (svasvarupman), he was divine (Shivaham, ‘I am Shiva.’)”

Was Orpheus a missionary from India?  Did the Vedic tradition directly influence Orphism?  Campbell doubts it.  “There have been those who sought to show that the movement stemmed from India, but the likelihood is not great.  More likely is a common source in the archaic Bronze Age order, which in its last phases underwent the negative transformation that I have termed The Great Reversal, when a literature of lament arose from Egypt to Mesopotamia, following centuries of invasion, murder, and rapine.”

In the Orphic Argonautica, the story of Jason and Argonauts told with Orpheus as the lead character, Orpheus himself claims to have visited Memphis and other sacred cities of Egypt.

The similarities between the Orphic and Egyptian practices are also striking.  The Egyptians had a tree in the afterlife, but theirs was a sycamore instead of the Orphic cypress.  The newly dead also arrived thirsty and begging for water.  The Book of the Dead included a formula to help the dead remember their names.  A declaration of purity was important.  And like the Orphic tablets, copies of the Book of the Dead were buried with those who could afford them.  Some have even speculated that Orpheus torn apart by maenads whose head floats away to become an oracle is merely a garbled or refashioned version of Osiris who was also torn apart.  Perhaps the Greeks were uncomfortable with the Egyptian obsession with the phallus of Osiris, early scholars wondered, and replaced it with a more socially acceptable decapitated head.

But the similarities between Orphic beliefs is even more striking when compared with “Great voyage of the soul,” a Hittite text.  For example, both involve a choice between a path of remembering or forgetting.  The Orphic fountain of forgetfulness suggests the Hittite sea of forgetfulness.  For both punishment involves the soul mired in mud.  In both myths a young deity is torn apart. In both the soul is given a drink that restores divinity.

Like the mystical Jewel Net of Indra made of mirrors reflecting mirrors except there are no mirrors all these possible sources for the Orphic counterculture lead to more questions than answers.


“life death life


Those words were found on a leaf of gold, near the Black Sea, in a grave not far from an ancient temple of Apollo.  In other graves gold leaves have been found, mostly in southern Italy.

What are these gold leaf objects (leaf in the sense of gold foil, but a few are cut to look like leaves)?  Historians usually call them gold tablets though they are very small and thin. German scholars adopted the term totenpass, meaning a passport for the dead.  But one gold leaf’s message starts with “password.”

The gold tablet, found in a womanʹs otherwise undistinguished grave in a large necropolis near Hipponion in southern Italy provided a less cryptic message:

Here is the password of Memory.  When you die

you go to the vast halls of Hades; a spring is on your right,

and by it stands a shining cypress tree

where the descending souls of the dead refresh themselves.

Stay away from that spring!

Further on you’ll find refreshing water

flowing from the lake of Memory.

Guardians stand by.

They will ask you sharply,

what you seek in the dank shadows of Hades.

Say: ʺI am a child of Earth and starry Heaven

and I’m parched perishing with thirst.  Give me now

refreshing water to drink from the lake of Memory.ʺ

They’ll speak to the king of the underworld,

then they’ll give you to drink from the lake of Memory,

and you, having drunk, will go along the holy road

famous initiates and mystics travel.

Orphism remains stubbornly mysterious.  A place where even skilled researchers end up chasing their own reflections or shadows, a fertile breeding ground for mystics and magicians.

Let me illustrate.  A phrase that appears on the gold tablets is “a kid i have rushed to milk and fallen in.”  This has inspired much poetic reverie.  Among scholars the assumption was that this was probably ancient slang for really finding yourself in your element, like a “donkey in hay.”  Some, perhaps influenced by the Neoplatonists imagined a deeper symbol in the idea of a young goat drowning in milk.  Could this be a metaphor for the way the soul loses consciousness when imprisoned in a material body?  What might have nourished us instead smothers us.

Or perhaps the kid is a symbol for the newly released soul rushing to the milk of spiritual sustenance.   A kid in milk is covered in white, like the white shroud of the dead, or the white robe of the Orphic, which may have been one and the same.  The kid in milk could also be an image of the newborn in placenta.  All these are symbols of the spiritual rebirth of the initiate.

Then another gold tablet was found in which a bull rushes to milk and falls in.  That’s an unnatural image.  A young goat is a hungry baby animal and mother’s milk is as good as it gets.  But bulls don’t drink milk.  Still, bulls and unweaned goats were symbols common to Dionysus.  Finally the word milk itself came into question.  The word could also be interpreted as referring to the froth of sea foam.  In some variations of the Dionysus myth he is a bull that rushes off a cliff and into the frothing white sea foam.  Could the gold tablet really be referring to that old myth?

To further complicate matters in ancient Greek religion hymns asked gods to leap into the milk, into the wine, into the youth maturing that year.  The kid or bull leaping into milk might be nothing more than a spring time prayer.

Radcliffe Edmonds makes a strong argument that the golden tablets were inscribed with sentences from an oracle.  You see, the ancients never mention Orpheus as having visited the underworld, and he’s not listed among those with special knowledge of the afterlife.  His fame, according to them, is for his rites of purification and his oracles.  Someone could have asked the oracle of Orpheus about crossing over to the after life and received the famous answer in hexameters about the glowing cypress tree and avoiding the waters of forgetfulness, including what to say to the guardians of the water of memory, that you are a child of earth and starry heaven but of the race of heaven.

Another gold tablet promises that though once mortal the initiate is now a god.  But no other gold tablet says that.  Edmonds suggests that the child of Earth and starry Heaven phrase is a reference to “the ancestral heroes, the founders of the race who lived in closer conjunction with the gods than ordinary folk today,” races like the Tritopatores, “Thrice Fathers,” from the times when gods feasted among men.

Except for those tablets that share the same content, how do we know that any of the tablets were connected by a consistent belief system or community?  Once thought to have been the symbols of exclusive membership in a mystical cult, they are now considered at best instructions for ritual dances or motions, at worst the relics of unscrupulous traveling oracle mongers.  The small number of them makes them seem rare and their influence seems therefore probably minor, but it’s easy to speculate that gold attracts grave robbers and most of the tablets may have been melted down for other uses.


What was the content of these probably Pythagorean creations foisted on the ancient world as the works of Orpheus himself?  The song of creation Orpheus sang, the so called Orphic Rhapsody, was an important myth analyzed for centuries by pagan philosophers.

Through two creations and six reigns Khronus (eternity) unfolds, beginning by dividing into Night, Aether and Chaos.  Then Aether and Chaos combine; they are spirit and matter, or energy and space, or order and disorder.  Not so different from Genesis 1: “In the beginning God (Khronos) created the heavens” (Aether) “and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep,” (Chaos).

As in Genesis light is about to break over the primal darkness.  At the dawn of the first creation from blended Aether and Chaos was born the cosmic egg, the Orphic egg as it has often been called, perhaps the prototype for our Easter egg.  When Proclus writes that Orpheus described creation as “infinity revolving vigorously in a circle” it’s hard to resist picturing a sun or planet forming but it might just as well be a single particle where energy and matter collide in space and time, or for that matter the entire universe or multiverse.  I won’t even try to tell the rest of the complicated Orphic creation story, I only will only add that the god who would someday rule over the sixth reign of the second creation was Dionysus.  But Dionysus would not kill or castrate his father as in the preceding reigns, the transition from Zeus to Dionysus would be polite. A more civilized way of life is the goal.

For the Neoplatonists in the twilight of pagan civilization this creation story was packed with mathematical and metaphysical symbolism.  They insisted the wisdom they were now sharing for fear it would be lost forever reflected the true hidden teachings of the pagan mysteries, but few have taken them at their word, then or now.  On the other hand, ancient Greek writers warned again and again that the Orphics wrote by images that were symbols that could not be understood by the uninitiated.  For centuries students of the cabbala and astrology have found fascinating parallels between their belief systems and the Orphic creation myth.


Early Christian writers busily undermining paganism often quoted ancient Greek myths as illustrations of pagan barbarity.  Not only were the gods said to engage in all sorts of indecent fornication and incest, the stories also included tales of child murder and cannibalism.  Of course, they never mentioned that the Old Testament could give the Olympians a run for their money.  Nor did they seem to notice that their own religion was built around a human sacrifice and a sacred ritual that involved the symbolic cannibalism of the savior’s blood and body.

Zagreus was the first Dionysos, or you might say Dionysos was the reincarnation of Zagreus, because the poor child didn’t last very long even though Zeus intended him to be his heir.  Using toys to distract him the hungry Titans, their faces smeared white, lured Zagreus to his death.  They tore him apart and made a stew out of him which they could savor only momentarily because Zeus at last saw them and he cleaned up that mess with a thunderbolt.  Humans were born from what was left.  So we’re part god, and part titan.  The titan part ruins everything with uncontrollable greed and rage but the divine part is always there, waiting to emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon.

Or as Dio Chrystostom wrote circa 100 AD: “All men come from the blood of the Titans.  They were enemies of the gods and battled against them, so we are not loved by the gods either, we are punished by them, born into retribution, imprisoned in this life for a certain time as long as we each live.  This harsh and foul-aired prison, the cosmos, was prepared for us by the gods.”

Though Plutarch in his essay On Eating Meat calls ancient the myth of Dionysus torn apart by the Titans and eaten, and then the thunderbolt of Zeus, nowhere does he say that humanity was born from the ashes.  By explaining why he thinks vegetarianism is a superior spiritual path, Plutarch may also be explaining the Orphic prohibition on meat eating.  He writes that meat obscures the soul.  It makes the body too heavy for the soul, blocking out the light with excess density instead of being an effortless vehicle for the soul the body becomes an affliction, blinding the soul with forgetfulness, dragging it down to the level of the Titans where destruction follows every action.  It does seem odd that Plutarch didn’t just come right out and say we are children of the Titans, that our flesh was made from their ashes.

Could the Dionysus myth be the source of the recurrent Christian projection that Jews or witches killed babies in rituals?  Is it possible that certain practices of the pagan mysteries survived long enough to devolve into or become slandered as the notorious witch’s sabbath?


Fear the Beard

Perhaps the most important gossip is Plato.  Some have argued that he was a Pythagorean or an Orphic himself.  The Neoplatonist Olympiodorus the Younger wrote: “Plato paraphrases Orpheus everywhere.”  Or as Proclus, the Neoplatonist born in Constantinople wrote in his Platonic Theology: “All Greek theology is an offshoot of the Orphic mysteries.”

Under the pressures of materialism on one hand, and their Christian faith on the other, several generations of scholars set up Plato as a creative genius, a founder of western civilization, like an intellectual Jesus figure, a saviour for philosophy.  The neoplatonists who said to understand Plato you have to understand Orpheus and Pythagoras were dismissed.  The Orphic literature and its influence were ignored, insulted by reputable scholars as an irrational intrusion into Greek culture.  But more recent scholarship has shown that the Neoplatonists, and their fans, including Thomas Taylor and Manly P. Hall, may have had it right.

With his emphasis on how music can contribute to the greatness or the demise of a civilization and his meticulous analysis of how citizens should behave, Plato may not have been a Pythagorean but he was certainly inspired by many of the same goals, and like them he drew spiritual inspiration from the laws governing numbers and motion.  In the Vision of Er the after life he describes has Orphic and Pythagorean overtones.  Plato describes the foolish souls who when it comes time to choose their reincarnations only look for the most dazzling fates written on the shards of fate; they never think to look at the back of each to see what corresponding suffering is written there.  Only Odysseus, the ultimate symbol of ancient Greek ingenuity, retains enough self awareness to choose the shard no one wants: a quiet life with very little suffering.

Orphic and Pythagorean concepts and practices are weaved throughout the Platonic dialogues.  But Plato is no fan of Orpheus and the Orphics.  He dismisses the Orphics as hustlers peddling fake books to rich clients.  As for Orpheus, he is a coward.

Why did Plato dismiss Orpheus as a coward, adding that it suited his profession of musician (the first musician joke in history)? Orpheus should have died to be with his beloved instead of making so much fuss the offended gods punished him by showing him only an apparition of his wife and then taking it away, finally sending the maenads to tear him limb from limb.  Plato says after that Orpheus so hated women he chose to be reborn as a motherless swan.

Yet Plato mentions Orpheus in ten of his dialogues.  In The Apology Socrates lists Orpheus first of the four greats he mentions, saying that if dying would allow him to meet them he would be willing to die many times for such a wonderful afterlife.  It seems to be the music of Orpheus that Plato respects.  He mentions his sweet voice and sweet hymns.  He ranks Orpheus with the great inventors in Laws, but not for music.  What then did Orpheus invent?  Some said he invented the hexameter form that revolutionized Greek poetry.


 Hypatia stops being a pagan.

The twilight of paganism was presided over by the Neoplatonic school of philosophers.  Orpheus was especially important to the Neoplatonists because he was the most acceptable to their Christian rivals.  Orpheus was a way for pagan writers to claim that they had a Jesus before Jesus.  It became a Neoplatonic preoccupation to go back through the works of Aristotle and Plato making comments in the margins meant to illuminate hidden meanings.  As Sara Rappe wrote: “Orpheus, from the enchanted visionary of the earlier tradition, becomes a metaphysically astute theologian for the later Neoplatonists.”

Proclus is little remembered these days though swarms of expensive academic studies about his works have been published recently.  He was a great influence on not just medieval European philosophy and mysticism but also Islamic.  Proclus believed that Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod drew wisdom from the same well, from teachings that Pythagoras and Plato explained.

Proclus gave us this version of the Orphic creation myth.  In the beginning was Eternity, undecaying time, and a force, call it Necessity, or compulsion.  As Eternity and Necessity wound around each other they evolve Aether, the organizing force, and Chaos, the primal emptiness.  They combined to create a cosmic egg that circled, quickening until Phanes burst out all blinding shine and stunning harmony, manifesting light waves and sound waves, the first being.  The only one to witness him was his sister daughter wife Night.  Depending on one’s opinion of the Neoplatonists this can be understood as a crude pagan incest myth or a way of conveying complex relationships between energies using only images.  Many more steps of creation remained, including the entirety of creation waiting in Zeus’s belly, the ultimate male usurpation of the female creative power!

The Neoplatonists obsessed on details.  Like Dionysus, Orpheus is torn into seven pieces, like the seven musical notes, and the seven planets, therefore seven is a holy number and great categories of seven could be listed.  Clement, a Christian writer working to discredit paganism, referred to verse from Orpheus about the Titans using toys to lure the baby Dionysus to his doom.  These included: “knucklebone, ball, hoop, apples, spinner, looking-glass, tuft of wool.”  Neoplatonists and other metaphysically inclined writers argued that this is a symbol of how the soul is lured by the fascinating elements, compounds, planets and other aspects of the material world and is then torn apart to inhabit the various organs and other parts of the body.

Marinus recalls studying the Hymns of Orpheus with Proclus, who shared with him the commentary of Iamblichus and Syrianus on their interpretation.  Marinus was so impressed he asked Proclus to put them in a book.  But Proclus said he had a dream of his teacher Syrianus who forbid him to put the interpretations into writing.  Marinus also writes that when Proclus was on his death bed, patiently suffering the pains of his illness, he asked his friends to sing the Hymns of Orpheus.  Marinus said the hymns stopped the pain and brought Proclus serenity.  At the very end, delirious, lapsing in and out of consciousness, unable to recognize his friends, Proclus would join in when the hymns were being sung by his friends; he was still able to remember the words.

With their astrology and law of correspondences the Neoplatonists begin to resemble medieval alchemists.  The first Christian emperor had already closed the Platonic School in Athens, where Plato and Aristotle had walked together, and the Byzantine empire was already becoming famous for the bureaucracy that would make its name an adjective for tortured and pointless complexity.  Olympiodorus was the last pagan to lead the Platonic School in Aldexandria.  After his death it passed into Christian hands and was moved to Constantinople.  Was Olympiodorus an alchemist?  Brisson has argued, that Olympiodorus may have made an alchemical allegory in his telling of the myth of Zeus burning the Titans and of the particles of smoke that are the material from which men were born.  Was Olympiodorus describing an alchemical distillation process?

A long lost great work of Neoplatonism has tempted the imaginations of metaphysicians for generations: On the Agreement Between Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato and the Chaldean Oracles.  Many have argued that Neoplatonism, as the last statement of a proud pagan tradition that knew it was dying (and being killed off), revealed secret doctrines for fear they would be lost forever.  The resemblances to Christianity, these scholars argue, is because Christianity borrowed so much from the pagan mysteries.  Today most historians agree that the Neoplatonists were imposing the complexities of their own metaphysics onto cobbled together myths and philosophical concepts that had never been put together that way before.  But there remains an enticing middle ground, since in all such matters words tend to be as much hindrance as help, it is possible that while they may not have been mindful of scientific method, the Neoplatonists were pointing at truths that were essential to the more elevated pagan communities.  Their rough and ready handling of time and place as they drew their examples may be somewhat offset by their constant reminders to readers that they are using a patchwork of images, myths, metaphors and science to convey something that words can’t really contain.


For the Jews of ancient Alexandria Orpheus was a monotheist who had studied under Moses himself.  For the fresco painters of Roman catacombs Orpheus was the prototype of Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Slowly the wild animals enchanted by the music of Orpheus were replaced by a flock of sheep.  Orpheus and Jesus both became popular symbols of the psychopomp that lead souls away from this life.  Orpheus on the mountain top singing to dawn was compared to the Sermon on the Mount.  Our Easter egg might be the Orphic egg.  A circa 350 AD hematite magic amulet, once in the collection of the Berlin Museum, depicted a man crucified on a cross with a moon and seven stars above his head and the words Orpheoc Bakkikoc.  It’s now thought to be a forgery, but was destroyed during WW2 so the mystery remains.

The mysterious The Testament of Orpheus was the most important Orphic document for six centuries after it’s “discovery” circa 300 AD.  In it Orpheus says when in Egypt he met Moses who taught him about monotheism.  Now an old man Orpheus urges pagans to give up their pantheon and accept the one true god.  It’s most likely the creation of a Jewish writer living in Alexandria but contemporary scholars and generations never thought it too convenient to be genuine.

From c. 300 AD to c. 600 AD Jesus and Orpheus blurred as artists depicted Jesus with a lyre surrounded by animals.  By 1150 Ioannes Galenos was a deacon with some surprising ideas, for example that Hercules and Jesus represent the same deity.  In his study of Hesiod, the great poet who had lived almost two thousand years before the deacon, he mentions The Hymns of Orpheus.  That’s the earliest reference to them.  But another flavor of the Orpheus myth was already developing.  The prototype of the Courtly Lover, Orpheus was an inspiration to the wandering troubadours of the High Middle Ages.

Around 1300 AD Orpheus, though only named once in The Divine Comedy, was placed by Dante in “the philosophic family,” those pagans who couldn’t be saved since they lived before Christ but who lived lives and taught beliefs that foreshadowed the Christian revelation.  God provided a nice field for them off to the side where they could enjoy something like a pagan heaven.  But Orphic themes are woven throughout Dante’s masterpiece.  From weeping Filippo Argenti pulled down by wrathful hands to Francesca da Rimini whose predicament, speech and character are practically a tribute to Virgil’s portrait of Orpheus.

By c. 1350 a popular book by a Benedictine monk moralizing on Ovid identified Jesus with Orpheus.  Fifty years later an anonymous Franciscan, also writing about Ovid, wrote: “Orpheus clearly denotes Jesus Christ, Divine Word, the teacher of good doctrine…” But a new flavor of Orpheus was already being born: the dashing knight, skillful musician, and romantic hero, Sir Orfeo.  This Orpheus had less to do with Jesus and was now being compared with King David.


“Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino e il Poliziano” – a fresco by Cosimo Rosselli

September 1462.  At 29 years of age Marsilio Ficino has found his calling.  He must live the contemplative life, translating the Hermetica, Plato, Iamblichus and Orpheus, exploring for himself, and sharing with others, the wonders and profundities of long forgotten pagan wisdom.  But how?  To live such a life would require the support of an important patron.  Ficino decided to celebrate an Orphic ritual, as a way of asking the universe to help him.  While he was performing the Hymn to the Cosmos his father brought him letters from Cosimo de Medici giving Ficino a villa and full support so he could concentrate on his translations.  Ficino wrote back to Cosimo that this coincidence “evoked in me the most immense wonder.

Ficino went on to play his lyre with Orpheus painted on it, singing the Orphic hymns many times for friends, whose nickname for him was Orpheus. He was the founder of the revived Platonic Academy in Florence, a place where great artists and humanists gathered to inspire one another.  Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lorenzo the Great, was in Ficino’s inner circle.

Ficino knew how the hymns had reappeared but we do not.  In 1423 Aurispa, an Italian historian, traveled to Constantinople in search of ancient Greek texts.  He arrived in Venice with 238 treasures barely saved from the war between Christians and Turks.  He brought back into the life of Europe the works of Plato, Sophocles, Aesychlus, and Plutarch.  The Orphic hymns may have been in that collection.  But we have no evidence.  Forty years later Ficino translated the hymns into Latin.  Ficino thought the hymns as we have them to be the verbatim record of the words of Orpheus himself, whose secret wisdom was taught to him by Hermes Trismegistus, his Egyptian equivalent.  Then Orpheus passed this wisdom to Pythagoras, Ficino believed.

“I learned from Orpheus that love existed, and that it held the keys to the whole world…the whole power of magic consists in love. The work of magic is the attraction of one thing by another because of a certain affinity of nature,” Ficino wrote summing up hermetic and magical theory in a sentence.  For Ficino the hymns were not relics of a lost era, curiosities to be toyed with.  He thought the words full of power.  Or as Ficino himself wrote: “to the Egyptian priests medicine, music and the mysteries were one and the same study.”  But they were also magical rituals.

“Our spirit”, Ficino says, “conforms to the rays of the heavenly spirit, which penetrates everything either secretly or obviously. It shows a far greater kinship when we have a strong desire for that life and are seeking a benefit that is consistent with it, and thus transfer our own spirit into its rays by means of love, particularly if we make use of song and light, and the perfume appropriate to the deity, like the hymns that Orpheus consecrated to the cosmic deities.”  By gathering up the right stones, herbs, musical tone, colors, incense, and performing the associated hymn on the right day at the right time of day, in aspect to your own horoscope, Ficino believed purification and enlightenment could be achieved.  He wasn’t invoking the gods to appear before him and grant his wishes.  He was tuning himself to their harmonics.  In a letter he once wrote that since he was born with Saturn conjunct the ascendant he hoped to find a mate with a jovial disposition to balance him.  But songs could do that, too.  As in the days of Pythagoras the right song could be used to convert fear, anger, or loneliness into contemplation of something holy.

“I have depicted the sublime, upward soaring of the heavenly mind,” Ficino wrote.  But in the world of Ficino and his friends the hymns were not limited to ritual use.  In his letters he writes about the pleasures of singing them alone or with good company.  Such casual use still has the profound effect of tuning up the souls of the performer and listeners.  In the writings of Iamblichus about Pythagoras, whom Ficino considered an Orphic initiate, Ficino found inspiration. Pythagoras, according to Iamblichus: “held that music contributes greatly to health, if used appropriately.  The healing he got from music he called purification. In spring a lyre player was seated in the center, and those who were good at singing sat round him in a circle and sang, to his accompaniment, songs of gratitude and praise, which raised their spirits and established inner harmony and rhythm. They also, at other times, used music as a kind of medicine. There were songs designed for afflictions of the soul, to counter despair and grief, and others to deal with rage or indignation.”

Ficino’s translations of the Hymns of Orpheus from Greek to Latin were never published, and no copy is known to exist today.  He circulated them only among friends, knowing that he was risking persecution by the church as a reviver of ancient superstitions.  Michael Allen has argued that the incenses accompanying the Orphic hymns were intended to provide smoke in which visible manifestations of the gods and goddesses could be encountered.  The Parisian magus Eliphas Levi described achieving just such a phenomenon when he magically invoked Apollonius of Tyana in London in 1854.  Levi wasn’t certain what had responded to his ritual, but the figure he saw appeared in the smoke from the twigs and perfume he burned chosen according to astrological and other correspondences Ficino would have recognized.

Ficino became a skilled lyre player.  His friends acknowledged that Ficino played music of a quality that inspired the poet Naldi to say that Ficino was the reincarnation of Orpheus.  Ficino’s friend Poliziano wrote: “his wise lyre chases away grave thoughts and his voice follows the song springing up from under his expressive fingers, like Orpheus, interpreter of Apollo’s songs.  When he has finished, drawn on by the passion of the Muses I go home, to write verses, and, ecstatic I invoke Phoebus, I touch the divine lyre with my plectrum.   His lyre is greater than the lyre of Thracian Orpheus, for he has brought back from the underworld what is, if I am not mistaken, the true Eurydice, that is Platonic wisdom with its all-embracing understanding.”  In 1474 Poliziano’s Orfeo, was performed at Carnival with stage design by Leonardo da Vinci.

The ultimate gift of creating music that can change your life and the lives of others cannot be gained by skill and wisdom only, the ultimate ingredient is what Ficino called “divine chance.”

Among Ficino’s friends was Count Pico della Mirandola, author of the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, where he wrote:  “the human vocation is a mystical vocation that has to be realized in three stages: moral transformation, intellectual research and final perfection in identity with the absolute reality. This paradigm is universal, because it can be retraced in every tradition.”  The abandonment by Orpheus of Dionysus for Apollo was not accurate according to the founder of the reborn Platonic Academy, who wrote that Apollo is air and fire and Dionysus earth and water, but they are “inseparable companions.”  He and Pico joked that they were the Apollo and Dionysus of Florence.

In his Seventy Two Cabalistic Conclusions Pico wrote: “The names of the gods that Orpheus sings are not names of deceiving demons, from whom evil and not good comes, but of natural and divine powers, distributed in the world by the true God for the great utility of man – if he knows how to use them”.

To Ficino astrological movements were governed by the same laws as music, musical intervals could be applied to planetary aspects.  He compares the relationship of a zodiac sign to its immediate neighbors within thirty degrees to the second interval in music, a dissonant experience.  But sixty degrees make the harmonious astrological sextile, and the pleasing harmony of a musical third.

In his letter The Orphic Comparison of the Sun to God Ficino explains “It is certainly in the Sun that visible light is created from the light of consciousness, and there also sight is created from understanding. For there understanding is no different from the light of consciousness, nor sight from visible light.”

But was Ficino actually worshiping pagan gods?  As Angela Voss wrote: “He saw Orpheus, in his hymns, addressing the gods as multi-faceted, multi-layered cosmic principles, each one mirroring the diversity of creation yet all representing aspects of a single unified power – all the gods in each god and each in all.”

Ficino wrote: “When you fear Mars, set Venus opposite.  When you fear Saturn, use Jupiter.”  This fellow who carried a flask of wine with him, encouraged wine drinking, but never to the point of getting drunk.  Nearing age sixty, Ficino looked back with pride on the renaissance that flowered in his hometown of Florence. “This age, like a golden age, has brought back to light those liberal disciplines that were practically extinguished: grammar, poetry, oratory, painting, sculpture, architecture, music and the ancient singing of songs to the Orphic Lyre.”  But the mad monk Savanarola was just around the corner with his bonfires of the vanities that burned so many books, including Ficino’s.


 Eliphas Levi

“The lyre of Orpheus civilized savage Greece,” Eliphas Levi

Orpheus went underground as Europe fought the long war between the Catholic Church and the Protestant nations. But we can look for and find him when the Elizabethans start their own cultural renaissance.  SIr Francis Bacon in his Of the Wisdom of the Ancients (1609)wrote that Orpheus was the perfect symbol of philosophy.  John Dee had Orpheus on his bookshelf, and he owed much of his own approach to ritual, for good or bad, to the Neoplatonist Iamblichus.  “Orpheus with his lute” is the name of a popular Elizabethan song.  Shakespeare offered his own succinct version of the myth:

ORPHEUS with his lute made trees

And the mountain tops that freeze

Bow themselves when he did sing:

To his music plants and flowers

Ever sprung; as sun and showers

There had made a lasting spring.

Every thing that heard him play,

Even the billows of the sea,

Hung their heads and then lay by.

In sweet music is such art,

Killing care and grief of heart

Fall asleep, or hearing, die.

A hundred years passes before the torch of Neoplatonic pagan ritual appears in new hands.  Orpheus is a recurring theme in many of the works by Eliphas Levi, the magus of Paris.  As Levi wrote in The Great Secret: “The God of Hermes, of Pythagoras, of Orpheus, of Socrates, of Moses and of Jesus Christ was one and the same God and spoke to them all.”  Levi was especially fascinated by the myth of the backward glance and by the violent death of Orpheus at the hands of the maenads.  He used them as lessons about never falling too much in love, or he compared them to Christianity, where Jesus is not exactly torn apart but is tortured and killed by a mob, however official.  He considered Orpheus the first magus of ancient Greece, and offered the interesting insight that what they meant by Orpheus having invented music and made the stones and trees dance was that by understanding the relationships between numbers and the laws of harmony he opened the way for a whole new world of practical inventions.

Almost a hundred years later Robert Graves believed it was code for the oldest alphabet, an alphabet of trees and other seasonal and geographical references.  Orpheus didn’t literally make inanimate objects dance; he created a language out of familiar things, an alphabet that allowed new forms of self-expression.  Setting the trees dancing would have been slang for using the tree alphabet masterfully.  Graves thought the murder of Orpheus by women a version of the prehistoric sacred king sacrificed at the end of his reign.  Graves was deeply influenced by Sir James George Frazer’s monumental study The Golden Bough, which saw human sacrifice as fertility ritual behind most myths (and politics?).

When Peladan, the friend of composer Claude Debussy, was producing, writing and directing mystical plays with his company The Salon and Theatre de la Rose Croix among the plays performed was one called Orpheus.  The salon exhibited paintings by Gustave Moreau, who painted the familiar masterpiece “Orpheus,” and their orchestra played music by Erik Satie.

Since Aleister Crowley claimed to be the reincarnation of Levi perhaps we should not be surprised how interested he was in Orpheus.  The famous Abby of Thelema in Cefalu on the island of Sicily could with its walls painted with powerful scenes be said to resemble an Orphic mystery cave.  Though Crowley never cites Jane Harrison or the other Cambridge Ritualists, they are conspicuous perhaps by their absence.  The Thelemic hymn itself: “I am risen” has an Orphic theme.

Like his poetic idol Shelley, Crowley wrote a poem about Orpheus.  Crowley divided the story of Orpheus into four parts.  In the first Orpheus tuned his lyre to the elemental forces.  Then Orpheus lamented the death of Eurydice.  Next he traveled to Hades.  Finally he sang on Mt. Ida and fell to the maenads.  Crowley meant it to be his greatest poem, the achievement that would guarantee his poetic fame, with dazzlingly complex rhyming schemes and an ideal blend of ceremonial magick enlightened by Buddhism, but the process of creating it was slow and troubling and the result disappointed him.  Friends were let down, too.  Nevertheless in 1905 Crowley released Orpheus: A Lyrical Legend in five beautiful two volume editions highly collectible thanks to their covers in five colors (olive, yellow, white, red and blue), there was also a one volume edition on hemp paper.

Orpheus shows up in Crowley’s periodical The Equinox.  “There are certain Water Elementals whom Orpheus calls Nereides, dwelling in the more elevated exhalations of Water, such as appear in damp, cloudy Air, whose bodies are sometimes seen (as Zoroaster taught) by more acute eyes, especially in Persia and Africa,” Crowley wrote in Equinox lii.  Orpheus appeared in the next volume as a conqueror of Hell in “The Poem of Hashish,” and then incidentally in Equinox liv as a symbol of consummate musical skill.   Absent from Equinox Iv, he reappears in Equinox Ivi, where Orpheus is asked to witness the victory of the “self-created Lord of Night.”  Later in The Rite of Mars Crowley wrote:

A loftier Argo cleaves the main,

Fraught with a later prize;

Another Orpheus sings again,

And loves, and weeps, and dies.

Absent from the next three volumes Orpheus returned triumphantly in Equinox lx as Crowley translated Eliphas Levi’s The Key of the Mysteries.  Here Levi tells the tale of the backward glance.  In Levi’s version, Orpheus is a magus: “He wears the vestments of Grand Hierophant.”  Facing the east he sings of the history of creation, which is the history of love.  Eurydice lies dead on the nearby bed.  As he sings her cheeks redden.  Crowley gives Levi a lovely translation here:

Unhappy one, do not look at her! Sing! Sing! Do not scare away

the butterfly of Psyche, which is about to alight on this flower!

Unromantic religious fanatics condemned all of this, of course, as necromancy.  From that point of view every pagan ritualist and all mediums are tainted like Orpheus by trafficking with the dead.


Virgil and Ovid gave us that romantic focus on the backward glance that has charmed so many.  But in ancient Rome depictions of Orpheus usually showed him bringing Eurydice back into the world of sunlight.  Early Christians knew Orpheus as a savior, not a failure; his trip to the underworld to save Eurydice was a model for the work of Jesus saving souls even from Hell.  Among the many operas on the theme of Orpheus the most famous end with the reunion of the lovers as the music is proven stronger than death.  And among the earliest tellings of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, or Agriope, the Wild Eyed, as she was also know, also have Orpheus saving her.  She even saves him once or twice.

What is the meaning of the backward glance, of the loss of Eurydice?  Why does it so haunt us?  In the Middle Ages it was a symbol of human weakness, the way even the most dedicated among us, the holiest, cannot escape those moments of desire for material pleasures.  The artist unable to grasp beauty, the desperate desire of the lover for his beloved, the over eagerness of passion, betrayal by insecurity, the attraction yet evasiveness of memory, the backward glance has been a mirror for generations, not escaping the scrutiny of Freudians and Jungians who finally reversed it, making it a symbol of individuation and the achievement of autonomy.  But the idea that Orpheus deliberately looked back, as a symbol of renunciation, goes back at least as far as John of Garland in 1234 AD.  As Mallarmé put it: “he became who he was meant to be”

That’s how Rilke saw it, too.  Not surprising, perhaps, for a man who separated from his wife six months after the birth of their first child because fatherhood interfered with his writing.  During the winter of 1922 in the Alps, Rilke felt the overwhelming presence of the source of all poetry and when he searched for a name for this shining being he found Orpheus.  Orpheus had already long been haunting him with inspiration through poems, found postcards and works of art.  Under this undeniable influence Rilke was compelled to write down 55 sonnets, his masterpiece The Sonnets to Orpheus.  The sonnets are dedicated to Wera Ouckama Knoop, the daughter of a Dutch novelist who was a friend of Rilke’s.  Rilke’s daughter had been a close friend of Wera’s, but Rilke had met her only a few times.

Wera was a beautiful child with a bright future in ballet, until she became sick with leukemia.  No longer able to dance she became a musician, and then her creative drive was reduced to drawing.  She died not long after reaching age nineteen.  Two years after her death, after an exchange of sentimental letters with Rilke, her mother sent him Wera’s sixteen page handwritten record of her anguished months of dying, which he read on the night of January 1, 1922.  On Feb 2 Rilke was possessed by Orpheus and wrote the sonnets.  Did Wera’s diary grip him with the foreboding of a prophecy of doom?  He died four years later of the same disease.  Wera was, at least as a muse, the Eurydice to Rilke’s Orpheus.


 ‘Orpheus’ by Astrid Zydower.

The remarkable Thomas Taylor deserves his own blog.  His massive translations of the complete works of Plato and Aristotle, of Plotinus, Proclus, and Iamblichus, were flawed and difficult, they never made him any money, writing his books bent his back and ruined his eyesight, but he was happy with the wife he had married young, and with their children, all chattering in Greek at the dinner table.  His labors earned him the ridicule of most of his contemporaries.  Blackwood’s magazine dismissed him with: “he knows next to nothing of the language about which he is always writing.”  But Mary Wollstonecraft, who stayed with him for three months as a teenager described his study as “the abode of peace.”  William Blake was influenced by Taylor’s work, as was Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The new generation of poets Shelley, Keats and Byron were also readers of Taylor’s translations.  Shelley’s poem Orpheus is said to have been a transcript of a poem Mary Shelley heard but never wrote down.

Taylor released the revised and enlarged second edition of his The Mystical Hymns of Orpheus in 1824, the year Lord Byron died.  All three of the young stars of English romantic poetry were dead.  Blake was soon to follow.  Three years later, also in London, Julian Hibbert published his text of The Hymns of Orpheus in the original Greek, which he called a typographical experiment because he printed the Greek without using the customary aspirates.  A year later he published Plutarchus and Theophrastus on Superstition.  In the preface to that book he complains that none of the London booksellers wanted to carry his Hymns of Orpheus, one dismissed it as “too thin.”  He adds that the literary magazines and newspapers ignored the numerous copies he sent out for review.  Hibbert signs off with the unforgettable: “I terminate this my Preface by consigning all “Greek Scholars” to the special care of Beelzebub.”

Orpheus was about to proliferate as never before.  The story of Orpheus has been depicted in numerous works by art by masters spanning centuries and continents, including Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Giorgione, Rodin, Paul Klee, Picasso, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Andre Masson and Isamu Noguchi. Gluck and Monteverdi, Franz Liszt, Offenbach, Telemann, Haydn, and of course Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus are only the first on a long list of composers fascinated by Orpheus.  Between 1600 and 2012 Orpheus has been the theme of at least 69 operas.  In 1993 Philip Glass debuted Orphée, a chamber opera.  Sadly, Claude Debussy’s operatic work on the theme of Orpheus was never finished.

John Swan’s painting Orpheus (1896) typifies eroticism and androgynous possibly feminine allure favored by artists of the late nineteenth century, including French sculptor Henri Peinte whose Orphée endormant Cerbère (1887) may have inspired Swan.

The art movement poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire at the Salon de la Section d’Or christened Orphism in 1912, in reference to the painter Kupka.  In Les Peintres cubistes Apollinaire described Orphism as “the art of painting new totalities with elements that the artist does not take from visual reality, but creates entirely by himself.  An Orphic painter’s works should convey an untroubled aesthetic pleasure, but at the same time a meaningful structure and sublime significance. According to Apollinaire Orphism represented a move towards a completely new art form, much as music was to literature. Orphic painters cited analogies with music in their titles; for example, Kupka’s Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colors (1912).  Sonia Delaunay was a Jewish-French artist who, with her husband Robert Delaunay and others, cofounded the Orphism movement, which was noted for its use of strong colors and geometric shapes. Her work extends to painting, textile design and stage set design. She was the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in 1964, and in 1975 was named an officer of the French Legion of Honor.

Jung wrote that the Orphic Mysteries “kept alive the old Dionysiac religion rooted in the art of agriculture.  He recorded details about Orphism, such as his observation that a ram is the symbol of the sunrise in the Orpheus frescoes in the cemetery of Domitilla.  Jung used the Orphic myth of Zagreus torn apart by the titans, and the death of Orpheus at the hands of the maenads as lessons about the limits of creativity and imagination: one may experience the magical quality of creating the right thing in the right place at the right time for the right reasons but such perfection can’t be sustained.”

Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, three films spread over three decades: The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orpheus (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1960) deconstructs the myth giving it new life.

In 1945 while still attending Columbia University just after meeting Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac wrote his first novella.  He never released it but Orpheus Emerged was found after his death and published.  I asked poet Randy Roark who worked with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs for many years about the Orphic influence on the beats and he had this to say: “Orpheus … one of my heroes! He made the trees and stones weep with his laments! I’ll be thinking about this. When I was studying at Naropa my minor was in mythology and I had a conversation with Allen about it–he said that they weren’t into myths except to the extent of mythologizing themselves. He said that (mostly via Burroughs’ psychotherapeutic bent) they decided they wouldn’t go down the route Pound and Joyce and even Williams at some points went–but they would instead approach their own lives as if they were mythic–look above, the mythic blue moon, or Moloch as the buildings of the financial district of S.F. etc.–and they were above trying to justify their writing via tying it to a classic myth–which they quite rightly claimed led to some of the most egregious poetry of the 40s and 50s. Jack Kerouac, he claimed, was a more useful “myth” than the gods of ancient Greece. But–oddly enough in this case–he did say the one myth they all related to was Cocteau’s filmic retelling of the story of Orpheus … especially in the scene where the poet is sitting in the car and getting his poetry from the radio. That scene–he said–became an image that was useful to the poet–that poetry did not come from the rational mind, but as if from a higher state of consciousness.”

In his journal Randy Roark recorded this comment by William Burroughs: “We no longer think that the sun is being driven around the planet by a Helios in a chariot–the world where the Gods made sense is over and by talking about myths we are trying to find meaning in something that has been emptied of meaning by time. Would you go back to Greek surgery, Greek science? Of course not. Plutarch killed off the gods once and for all when he reported how Tiberius, while sailing the Greek coast, heard a voice calling to him with the news that ‘The Great Pan is dead!’ But there are still people who haven’t gotten the message.”

The Orpheus myth inspired the American playwright Tennessee Williams’ 1957 drama “Orpheus Descending” with its snakeskin jacketed, guitar strumming lead male character. 1959 saw the critically acclaimed film Black Orpheus made in Brazil by Marcel Camus.  Bob Dylan understood the Orphic implications of his classic album Don’t Look Back.  In the late sixties and early seventies MGM released records by an avant garde rock group called Orpheus, whose sound was so influenced by The Doors it can only be described as the sincerest form of flattery.  The 21st century has its own group named Orpheus, a popular Australian melodic death metal band. Orpheus the Tired Troubador was painted in 1970 one the last works by de Chirico, in some ways the father of the Surrealists.  De Chirico designed stage sets mid century productions of Monterverdi’s and then Gluck’s operas about Orpheus.

Randy Roark gives another glimpse into the mind of Burroughs on the subject of ancient Greece.  “One more: July 1983, at Allen’s in the afternoon, Burroughs: “Hesiod in Works and Days and the rest of his crew were not writing mythology–they were writing Natural Science, history, and psychology. They were the Freuds of their time. But with some distance their science and history and psychology we see as metaphysics. The lesson for us is that if we could only see our own science, history and psychology from the point of view of an alien we would see it as metaphysics too. If we can do that, we can climb out of our own time’s metaphysics and view it the same way we do the beliefs of the best and the brightest of 5th century BC Greece.”

Astrid Zydower grew up in the disputed territory once Germany, now Poland where she had childhood memories of being spit on for being a Jew, her name literally means, “born of a Jew”.  Her parents shipped her off to England just before they were sent to die in Auschwitz in 1939, the year Hitler invaded Poland.  She grew up to be a respected artist, a good friend of Charlie Watts, drummer of the Rolling Stones, whose works were commissioned by earls and Mick Jagger.  In 1984 this quiet little woman unveiled what may have been her masterpiece, her nine feet bronze “Orpheus”.   The eroticism of the late nineteenth century artistic perspective remains, but he is no longer androgynous.

In 1992 Orpheus was the inspiration for a horror comedy film called Highway to Hell, about a couple that elopes to Vegas.  The groom gives chase when the bride gets arrested by a Hell Cop and is dragged to Hell to wed Satan.  Real Hell’s Angels bikers and golden haired cannibals are among the challenges he faces.   It’s a cult classic, with cameos by Ben and Jerry Stiller and Gilbert Gottfried as Hitler.  In 1996 the TV show and comic book series Xena Warrior Princess featured Orpheus as a character.

In 2000, a two-hour docudrama Orpheus and Eurydice was released, narrated by Oliver Reed, by the production company best known for their Treasures of Ancient Hellas video series.  Orpheus has also been a popular theme in comic books, from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman to first African American super hero Gotham City’s Orpheus, whose story was entwined with Batman in a short lived comic book series from 2001 to 2002, only to have his throat slit by the villain Black Mask.  The White Wolf game Orpheus released in 2003 issued six rulebooks including one called Shades of Gray.  In 2004 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released their thirteenth record: Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.  2009’s freeware game Don’t Look Back is a modern interpretation of the myth.  Orpheus has never been so popular, and that’s saying something considering how popular he was in Rome. Perhaps most importantly the quality and quantity of scholarship being devoted to these mysterious subjects is far beyond any we’ve seen.  We’re just one archeological find away from turning all the contradictory things we know upside down yet again.


Since we’ve been taking a look at Betty and Stewart Edward White and their experiments and adventures with the Invisibles I thought it might be interesting to compare these two systems of thought separated by a thousand years, an ocean and a dead language.  In the most often accused of being Orphic of Plato’s Dialogues, the Phaedo, bad souls are condemned to lie in mud in the afterlife.  Plato’s message about the after life is that we in fact are now in the underworld.  We live as if in a cavern, a hole in a rock in the earth (obstructed) but the purified soul achieves liberation and immortality in a world without boundaries (unobstructed).  We don’t have much evidence about how the Orphics envisioned the afterlife.  Eternal sunlight shining on a beautiful meadow, like Pindar’s meadow of purple roses.

But Plato’s Orphic themes provide some interesting possibilities.  In his excellent book Myths of the Underworld Journey Edmonds writes about Plato: “In the Phaedo he describes the unphilosophic as imprisoned in their materiality, unable to move beyond the phenomenal world like ghosts who haunt graveyards because they are unable to make their way to Hades.  The practices of philosophy permit the philosopher to make the normal transition, whereas the unphilosophic is left stranded at the threshold of the two worlds.”  Betty spent years mastering techniques that she claimed allowed her to enter the unobstructed consciously, and she lamented those gelatinous souls who never developed an identity.  The Invisibles said they were trying to teach us how to die before we die.

“–the company of the blessed is delightful in Plato,” Edmonds continues, “because of the purity and clarity of the upper world.”  Betty described the unobstructed the same way: vibrant, pure and clear.  “Moreover, Plato ascribes this traditionally postmortem reward to the philosopher during his life, if he can sufficiently free himself from the undue consideration of the phenomenal world.”  Betty talked about the “blood sucking” details of life we can lose ourselves in, and how by freeing ourselves from them we can live better lives here and arrive consciously in the afterlife.  Plato refers to the fates of “the ordinary dead” in the afterlife as suffering in mud and filth.  The invisibles talked about the consequences in the afterlife of a life lived in mud, Stewart liked to compare such souls to mud turtles, and titled one of his earliest books about the unobstructed Why Live Like a Mud Turtle?  In Plato the unphilosophic suffer not only the afterlife but in this one, whereas the philosophic are able to avoid many troubles.  The Invisibles taught that the world is a great harmony and by developing awareness a soul can harmonize and thereby avoid what they called “runaway trains.”  The same ideas about number, harmony, and living a good life are at the heart of the Pythagorean side of Plato.

When Ficino wrote: “While experiencing moving flashing water, clear air, a fire not too close, the sky, you receive the motion of the life of the world,” he’s sharing the same technique Stewart was when he suggested enjoying or recalling the splendors of nature to quiet the mind and being the process of spiritual contact and nourishment.

Were Stewart and Betty White secret Platonists?  Had Plato so thoroughly influenced western culture that even experiments in the unconscious will produce Platonic results, though the experimenters may never have read, or wish they had never read, a dialogue?  Are the results the same, and so similar to beliefs around the globe, and over time, because that is the nature of human denial, or perhaps because they are true?  Each much decide for her or himself whether anyone can know for sure.

When the Invisibles promised that spiritual contact can help incarnates avoid what they called “runaway trains,” essentially tragic accidents, they didn’t know Ficino had promised his friends in Florence, Italy four hundred years earlier, that the spiritual techniques he had learned from Plato, Hermes and Iamblichus were good for “avoiding the malice of fate.”  Ficino described it as freeing himself from the gravity of his body, from the limited consciousness of a soul that has forgotten itself, to live instead with awakened soul, and therefore with free will.  The Invisibles described it as practicing spiritual contact, mostly by meditation on relaxed appreciation, to free yourself from the vortex of your body, so you can live with spiritual awareness, and avoid the runaway trains of life.  They seem to have been describing the same dynamic in surprisingly similar ways given the differences between their centuries.


I took ancient Greek in college because I was the only student my teacher had and she let me smoke with her as we studied in her garden.  At the time I was fascinated by the Hymns of Orpheus but I was frustrated by the poor translation.  I decided to huddle with Liddle and Scott’s Greek Lexicon to work out the individual words.  I also wanted to try performing them since they were meant to be sung.  I got the appropriate incense and with the help of my roommate we sat at the window of our urban apartment looking out at the sky over building tops all around us.

Our experiences were strange to say the least.  The owl that landed on the corner of the roof of our apartment building immediately after the hymn to owl-eyed Athena.  The rumble of thunder and flash of lightning in an otherwise blue sky at the moment the hymn to Thundering Zeus ended.  We felt like we were hallucinating at times, because the coincidences were so marvelous.  We were surprised several years later when we read about Ficino’s similar experiences and his recommendation that no magic is more powerful than that of the Orphic hymns.”  We don’t expect anyone to believe it; we wouldn’t if we hadn’t both been there.  We figured if we were going to try the hymns out we should go whole hog, so we were celibate and drug free.  We even ate as Orphically as we were able.  We didn’t try to replicate the results.  We figured innocence can only be as good as wisdom that lucky first time, and not everyone is lucky their first time.

Another example of these mysterious coincidences occurred when my earlier book about Orpheus was published.  My senior project in college found a home with the late great Phanes Press.  I didn’t tell the publisher that I was learning to play guitar, or that I had long hair, or that my guitar had tiny multicolored glass beads glued to look like constellations in the sky.  The publisher chose Luis Milan’s El Maestro, 1536, for the cover, the first known depiction of what we today call the guitar.  This Orpheus has long hair and stars on his guitar.  Not worth a shrug without the timing of its arrival.  In the background of the woodcut is a city in flames.  When the first copies of the book arrived at my front door Los Angeles was in flames during the riots, columns of fire were visible from all my windows.

But then it’s equally strange that in the 1960s through the 1990’s we evolved a culture where traveling musicians held tremendous sway over their disciple like fans.  Singing songs about stairways to heavens and highways to hell, they were rewarded with the 20th century version of a golden fleece, a gold record.  Even Spinal Tap was Orphic since they sang “Rock and Roll Creation,” their Orphic Rhapsody about how the world began.

Her scholarship is dated now, and many of her conclusions suspect, but Jane Harrison, England’s first female professional academic, had a deep understanding of her subject.  In her Prolegomena to Greek Religion she wrote “The religion of Orpheus is religious in the sense that it is the worship of the real mysteries of life, of potencies rather than personal gods; it is the worship of life itself in its supreme mysteries of ecstasy and love … It is these real gods, this life itself, that the Greeks, like most men, were inwardly afraid to recognize and face, afraid even to worship … Now and again a philosopher or a poet, in the very spirit of Orpheus, proclaims these true gods, and asks in wonder why to their shrines is brought no sacrifice.”

A special thank you to Professor Apostolos Athanassakis for providing me with a photocopy of his book of translations of the Hymns of Orpheus.

Written by Ronnie Pontiac

Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge.  He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.


Creation and Salvation in Ancient Orphism

Alderink, Larry J.

American Philological Association, 1981

Instructions in the Netherworld

The Orphic Gold Tablets

Bernabe, Alberto and Cristobal, Ana

Brill   2008

Under the Spell of Orpheus:

The Persistence of a Myth in Twentieth-Century Art

Bernstock, Judith

Southern Illinois University Press, 1991

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Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation

Betegh, Gabor

Cambridge University Press, 2007

The Tree at the Navel of the Earth

Butterworth, E.A.S.

Walter de Gruyer, 1970

Dionysus Slain

Detienne, Marcel

John Hopkins University Press, 1977

The Writing of Orpheus:

Greek Myth in Cultural Context

Detienne, Marcel

John Hopkins University Press, 2002

“Tearing Apart the Zagreus Myth:

A Few Disparaging Remarks On Orphism and Original Sin”

Edmonds, Radcliffe

Classical Antiquity Journal 18.1

University of California Press, 1999

Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World

Dickie, Matthew

Routledge, 2003

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Magicians and Orphics in the Derveni Papyrus”

Edmonds, Radcliffe

Center for Hellenic Studies

Harvard University Press,  2010

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Thronosis in Ritual, Myth and Iconography”

Edmonds, Radcliffe

American Journal of Philology 127.3  2006

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Plato, Aristophanes, and the “Orphic” Gold Tablets

Edmonds, Radcliffe III

Cambridge University Press, 2004

The God of Ecstasy:

Sex-Roles and the Madness of Dionysos

Evans, Arthur

St. Martin’s Press, 1988

Neoplatonism and Indian Thought

Harris, R. Baine ed.

State University of New York, 1982

Empedocles: An Interpretation

Trepanier, Simon

Routledge, 2004

Amazons: A Study in Athenian Myth Making

Tyrrell, William Blake

John Hopkins University Press 1984

Paradise Earned:

The Bacchic-Orphic Gold Lamellae of Crete

Tzifopoulos, Yannis

Center for Hellenic Studies

Harvard University Press,  2010

Orpheus with his Lute:

Poetry and the Renewal of Life

Henry, Elisabeth

Southern Illinois University Press, 1992

The “Orphic Gold Tablets and Greek Religion:

Further Along the Path

Edmonds, Radcliffe, ed.

Cambridge University Press, 2011

Tracing Orpheus

Studies of Orphic Fragments

Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal

Walter de Gruyter,  2011

Pythagorean Politics in Southern Italy

An Analysis of the Sources

Von Fritz, Kurt

Columbia University Press, 1940

Early Orphism and Kindred Religious Movements

Nilsson, Martin

Harvard University Press, 1935

Studies on the Derveni Papyrus

Laks, Most ed.

Oxford University Press, 1997

The Arts of Orpheus

Linforth, Ivan

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Orpheus and Greek Religion

Guthrie, WKC

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Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets

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Restless Dead:

Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece

Johnston, Sarah

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Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion

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Reading Neoplatonism:

Non-discursive Thinking in the Texts of Plotinus, Proclus and Damascius

Rappe, Sara

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The Greek Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo:


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The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife:

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The Myth of the Poet

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Orpheus: The Metamorphosis of a Myth:

Studies in the Orpheus Myth from Antiquity to the Renaissance

Warden, John, ed.

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The Orphic Moment

Shamn to Poet-Thinker in Plato, Nietzsche and Mallarme

McGahey, Robert

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Interpretation and Dionysus:

Method in the Study of a God

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Myth of the Magus

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Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity

Uzdavinys, Algis

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Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism

Burkert, Walter

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Orpheus in the Middle Ages

Friedman, John

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Religion in the Ancient Greek City

Zaidman, Louise and Pantel Pauline

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Greek and Roman Necromancy

Ogden, Daniel

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“The Children of Earth and Starry Heaven:

The Meaning and Function of the Formula in the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets”

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Orfeo y el orfismo: nuevas perspectivas

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“Recycling Laertes’ Shroud: More on Orphism and Original Sin”

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A Lyrical Legend

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Marsilio Ficino

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Music As Medicine:

The History of Music Therapy Since Antiquity

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The Musical Magic of Marsilio Ficino’

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his Theology, his Philosophy, his Legacy

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“Father Time and Orpheus”

Voss, Angela

The Imaginal Cosmos:

Astrology, Divination and the Sacred

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The Natural Magic of Marsilio Ficino

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The Orphic Hymns:

Text, Translation and Notes

Athanassakis, Aposotolos

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The Song of Life

Roe, Ann

Overlook Press, 2012

Under the Spell of Orpheus:

The Persistence of a Myth in Twentieth-Century Art

Bernstock, Judith

Southern Illinois University Press, 1991


Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic:

Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition

Kingsley, Peter

Cambridge University Press 1995


Watmough, J.R.

Cambridge University Press, 1934


Post-Mortem Judgements in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece

Stilwell, Gary

iUniverse, 2005

Enlightenment Orpheus:

The Power of Music in Other Worlds

Agnew, Vanessa,

Oxford University Press, 2008

The Early Greek Concept of the Soul

Bremmer, Jan

Princeton University Press, 1983


The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality among the Greeks

Rohde, Erwin

Routledge, 2000

Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion

Harrison, Jane

Cambridge University Press, 1903


The Social Origins of Greek Religion

Harrison, Jane

Cambridge University Press, 1912

The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library

Fideler, David ed.

Phanes Press, 1988

Homage to Pythagoras:

Rediscovering Sacred Science

Bamford, Christopher, ed. 1994

The Hymns of Orpheus:


Hogart, R.C.

Phanes Press, 1993

The Philosophy of Proclus

The Final Phase of Ancient Thought

Rosen, Laurence

Cosmos Press, 1949

The Masks of God:

Occidental Mythology

Campbell, Joseph

Viking, 1964

Plutarchus and Theophrastus on Superstition

Hibbert, Julian

London, 1828

Orphism and Christianity in Late Antiquity

Jáuregui, Miguel

De Gruyter, 2010

How Philosophers Saved Myths: 

Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology

Brisson, L.

University of Chicago Press, 2004

A Cult Ordinance

Essays on Religion and the Ancient World

Nock, A. D.

Harvard University Press, 1972

The Dramatic Festivals of Athens

Pickard-Cambridge, A. W.

Oxford University Press, 1968


The Song of Life

Wroe, Ann

Jonathan Cape, 2011

Homer the Theologian:

Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition

Lambert, Robert

University of California Press, 1989

Life of a Poet:

Ranier Maria Rilke

Freedman, Ralph

Northwestern University Press, 1998

A Ringing Glass:

The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke

Prater, Donald

Oxford University Press, 1994

“Voices of the Fire:

Understanding Theurgy”

Uzdavinys, Algis

Eye of the Heart, Vol 1, 2008

“Dante’s Metam-Orpheus:

The Unspoken Presence of Orpheus in the Divine Comedy”

Schwebel, Leah


The McGill Journal of Classical Studies, Volume IV: 62-72, 2005


4 thoughts on “Orpheus and Counterculture

  1. This was a wonderful overview of Orpheus, and, having it found it entirely by accident (while learning more of the life of Marsilio Ficino), it has sparked my interest to learn more and to reread this in order to absorb it all fully. This piece is beautifully written and holds wisdom through discrimination without prejudice.

    Posted by Glynna | October 5, 2012, 4:02 am
  2. I really desire to take note of this specific post, “Orpheus and Counterculture Newtopia
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    reallydo it? Thank you ,Vilma

    Posted by http://tinyurl.com/asinrhoda23564 | January 12, 2013, 3:17 pm
  3. Ronnie,
    Excellent piece on Orpheus and Orphic theology! Well researched, well written, well lived. I’m in a group that is studying the Orphic Gods via Proclus’ Theology of Plato (tr. Taylor) as it applies to metaphysical astrology. Very rich material, as you so eloquently touch on in a number of ways.


    Posted by Greg Kramer | June 15, 2013, 4:33 am

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