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Chapter 16

Orpheus and Orphism: Mystery Religions in Roman Times


THE STORY OF ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE

The Thracian bard ORPHEUS [orf'e-us] summoned HYMEN [heye'men], the god of marriage, to be present at his marriage to his beloved EURYDICE [you-ri'di-see]. The omens, however, were bad, and the new bride was bitten on the ankle by a snake and died.
The grieving Orpheus was so inconsolable that he dared to descend to the Underworld, where he made his appeal to the king and queen themselves, Hades (Pluto) and Persephone (Proserpina), in a song sung to the accompaniment of his lyre. In the name of Love, Orpheus asked that his Eurydice be returned to him in life; if not, he would prefer to remain there in death with his beloved. His words, his music, and his art held the shades spellbound, and the king and queen were moved to grant his request, but on one condition: Orpheus was not to turn back to look at Eurydice until he had left the Underworld. As they approached the border of the world above, Orpheus, anxious and yearning, turned and looked back, through love. At his gaze, Eurydice slipped away from her husband’s embrace with a faint farewell, to die a second time. Orpheus was stunned, and his appeals to Charon that he cross the Styx again were denied. Overwhelmed by grief, he withdrew to the mountains and for three years rejected the many advances of passionate women. Thus he was the originator of homosexuality among the Thracians.
While he was charming the woods, rocks, and wild beasts to follow him, a group of Bacchic women, clad in animal skins, caught sight of him and, angry at his rejection of them, hurled weapons and stones, which at first did no harm because they were softened by his song. As the madness and the frenzied music of the maenads grew more wild and the bard’s song was drowned out, he was overcome and killed and finally torn to pieces by their fury. His limbs were scattered, but his head and lyre floated on the river Hebrus out to sea, both all the while making lamentations. They were washed ashore at Lesbos. Here, Apollo froze into stone a serpent that was about to bite the head of Orpheus.
Orpheus now at last was reunited with his Eurydice in the Underworld, where they remain together, side by side, forever.

THE VERSIONS OF OVID AND VERGIL

The summary above is of Ovid’s version of the myth in his Metamorphoses (translated in full, MLS, Chapter 16). The other classic version is by Vergil, at the end of his Georgics (see Archives). It is rewarding to compare the poetic emphasis of the two and analyze the reasons for variations in incident, drama, and purpose; both, in different ways, immortalize the theme of tragic love and devotion. The most important “factual” difference in Vergil’s treatment is that he holds ARISTAEUS (ar-is-tee'us), or ARISTAIOS, the keeper of bees, responsible for Eurydice’s death, a detail absolutely essential for the incorporation of the Orpheus myth into the thematic material of his Georgics, a work about farming.

ORPHEUS AND ORPHISM

Orpheus of Thrace was the son of Apollo (or the Thracian river-god Oeagrus) and the muse Calliope. Through music and poetry and with extraordinary art, he delivered a persuasive religious message, the foundation of a mystery religion called Orphism. This message is linked both to Apollo and to Dionysus, gods often antithetical in nature. Orpheus is torn to pieces by fanatical Bacchic maenads; this mirrors the fate of Pentheus and suggests that his death was prompted not only by his sexual rejection of women but also because of the nature of his religious teaching.

The Orphic Bible. With its myth of creation, the Orphic bible was linked in some of its details to the Hesiodic account but differed radically in its spiritual content. The first principle is Time (Chronos) and Eros, or Love, is the first born of the deities, called PHANES [fa'neez] and hatched from an egg. Fundamental for dogma was the myth of Dionysus (see MLS, Chapter 13), in which the infant god was torn to pieces and devoured by the wicked Titans; from the ashes of the Titans (smitten by Zeus’ thunderbolt), humans were created; hence the immortality of the soul, sin and virtue, reward and punishment.

CHARACTERISTICS OF MYSTERY RELIGIONS

Christianity shares many characteristics with other mystery religions of antiquity, which are called mystery religions because of their concern with the fundamental mysteries of human existence: life and death, questions about god, the soul, and the afterlife. Also, these mysteries involved secrets revealed only to members of the religious group, the initiates.
Thus a form of initiation into a mystery religion was mandatory, requiring some kind of ritual such as baptism to set the initiate apart from the profane outsiders. A mystery religion preached a dogma to be believed and directions to be followed for happiness and redemption. Faith in the concept of god or the gods was primary, as well as a conviction in the immortality of the human soul, which partook of divine characteristics. In conflict with the purity and immortality of the divine soul were the sin and degradation of the mortal body. Communion, the sacramental partaking of food and drink, linked the initiate with the divine.
A strong sense of virtue and sin and reward and punishment in an afterlife was fundamental, embracing various concepts of immortality, involving the transmigration of souls, rebirth, reincarnation, resurrection, and redemption.

MYSTERY RELIGIONS OF ANTIQUITY

Many mystery religions (in addition to Christianity) developed and flourished during the Roman Empire:

  • The Mysteries of Dionysus/Bacchus (see MLS, Chapter 13): The vine of Dionysus (Ariadne’s savior) became a symbol of renewed life and Christian resurrection and redemption.
  • The Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis (see MLS, Chapter 14).
  • The Mysteries of Cybele and Attis (also discussed in MLS, Chapter 9): the priests were eunuchs called Galli, and rites of initiation included baptism by the blood of a slain bull, the taurobolium.
  • The Mysteries of the Persian god Mithra (Mithras).
  • The worship of Atargatis, Dea Syria (the Syrian goddess) and Tammuz.
  • The Mysteries of the Egyptian goddess Isis and Osiris, her consort: most fully documented by Apuleius in his Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, as he describes the experiences of the initiate Lucius.
  • The Mysteries of the Cabiri, called the great gods (theoi megaloi).
  • Syncretism: in the development of Greco-Roman religious thought the process of SYNCRETISM (“growing together”) becomes increasingly apparent. This term describes the harmonizing by different religions of their gods and myths into some sort of unity. In Apuleius, the great Egyptian deity Isis has absorbed the identity of other similar goddesses and may be invoked by their names, Cybele, Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter, Persephone, and Hera.


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