Ripping God to Shreds

« Orpheus ripped to shreds by the Maenads », Pierre-Marcel Béronneau, 1895.

To the sound of cymbals and flutes, to the light of torches, disheveled women dance. They are the bacchae. Dressed in fox skins, wearing horns on their heads, holding snakes in their hands, seized by a « sacred madness, » they rush on animals chosen for sacrifice, tear them to pieces, tear them to pieces, and devour the bloody flesh raw.

These bacchanals — or Dionysian feasts, have fascinated the ancients for centuries.

« The bacchanals celebrate the mystery of angry Dionysus, leading the sacred madness to the ingestion of raw flesh, and they perform the absorption of the flesh of the massacres, crowned with snakes, and crying out ‘Evoha !’»i.

What did it mean? The myth reports that Dionysus Zagreus, son of Zeus and Persephone, had taken the form of a young bull to try to escape his pursuers. But he was caught, torn and devoured by the Titans, enemies of Zeus.

In Thrace, this god is called Sabos or Sabazios, and in Phrygia it is called Cybele.

It is in Thrace that initially, between the 8th and 7th centuries BC, these cults of divine madness and ecstatic dancing, culminating in the dismemberment of living flesh, and its bloody devotion, arose.

Historians of religion are inclined to detect in them, not a local phenomenon, but the symptom of a more universal movement originating in human nature, in its desire to establish a relationship with the divine.

« This Thracian orgiastic cult was merely the manifestation of a religious impulse which is emerging at all times and in all places throughout the earth, at all levels of civilization, and which, therefore, must derive from a deep need of man’s physical and psychic nature (…) And in every part of the earth, There are peoples who consider these exaltations as the true religious process, as the only way to establish a relationship between man and the spirit world, and who, for this reason, base their worship above all on the uses that experience has shown them to be most suitable for producing ecstasies and visions.”ii

Many peoples, on all continents, have had similar practices aimed at achieving ecstasy. The Ostiaks, the Dakotas, the Winnebagos, in North America, the Angeloks in Greenland, the Butios in the West Indies, the Piajes in the Caribbean, and many other peoples followed shamanic rites.

In Islam, the Sufis and the Whirling Dervishes know the power of ecstatic dance. Jalâl al-Dîn Rûmî testified: « He who knows the power of dance dwells in God, for he knows how Love kills. Allahu !”iii

The cult of « divine madness » and frenetic exaltation has also been recorded in « Christian bacchanals » in Russia, in the sect of « Christi », founded by a « holy man », named Philippoff, « in whose body God came one day to dwell and who from then on spoke and gave his laws as the living God.”iv

The Dionysian cult of drunkenness and divine ecstasy is closely related to the belief in the immortality of the soul, for many peoples, in all periods of short human history.

This belief is based not on dogmas or prophecies, but on an intimate experience, really and personally felt, by all those who actively participated in those nights of madness and ecstasy.

The link between the belief in the immortality of the soul and the devouring of pieces of the torn body probably appeared in the most ancient times.

As early as a remote era, going back more than eight hundred thousand years (if we take into account the dating of the remains found in the Chou-Kou-Tien caves), the cutting up of corpses was probably a way of definitively ensuring the death of the dead, a way of making them harmless forever, unable to return to earth to threaten the living.

But it was also, ipso facto, an indication of an ancient and diffuse belief in the survival of the soul, despite the evidence of the death of the body.

We will probably never know what Homo Sinanthropus thought of the spirit world. On the other hand, we do have myths of dismemberment attested throughout antiquity and throughout the world.

Orpheus, a divine hero, died torn apart and dismembered alive by mad Thracian women.

Agamemnon, murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, complains in the other world of the atrocious outrages she inflicted on him after killing him: « After my shameful death, she subjected me, out of malice, to maschalism.”v

Maschalism consists in symbolically mimicking the treatment of animal victims during sacrifices. The priests would cut off or tear off the animal’s limbs and offer them as first-fruits to the gods in the form of raw flesh.

The astonishing thing is that the murderers used this method for their own purification, to inflect the anger of the victims, and especially to make the dead person powerless to punish the murderer.

Consequently, they cut up the corpse of the victims, amputating or tearing off the arms and legs at their joints, and then forming a chain that they hung around the shoulders and armpits of the corpse.

There is a certain logic at work here. The dead man’s arms and legs are amputated so that his soul cannot grasp the weapons placed in front of his grave and come back to fight.

In Egypt, Osiris is killed and then cut into fourteen pieces by his brother Set. The body parts are thrown into the Nile and scattered throughout the country.

Let us note that the Osirian myth is replayed for all the deceased, at the time of embalming.

It is in Egypt that the cutting up of corpses took the most ritualized and elaborate form, using a battery of surgical, chemical, and magical methods, including dismemberment, maceration, mummification, cremation, and exposure of various body parts. The embalming ritual lasts seventy days.

« The brain is extracted through the nose, the viscera are removed through an incision made in the side; only the heart, swaddled, is put back in its place, while the organs are placed in « canopies », vases with lids in the shape of human or animal heads. The remaining soft parts and body fluids are dissolved by a solution of natron and resin and evacuated from the body rectally. This first phase takes place under the sign of purification. Everything that is « bad » is removed from the body, in other words everything that is perishable and can compromise the form of eternity that is the goal.”vi

In the ancient Egyptian religion, all these violent interventions around the dead and dislocated body were intended to make the dead person die, as it were, permanently. But they also facilitate the passage from death to eternal life after the embalming of the body and mummification, which is an essentially « magical » operation.

« Then begins the drying phase (dehydration and salting), which lasts about forty days. Reduced to skin and bones, the corpse will then be put back in shape during the mummification ritual; It is then that the skin is anointed with balsamic oils to restore its suppleness, stuffed with resins, gum arabic, fabrics, sawdust, straw and other materials, inlaid with fake eyes, cosmetics and wigs, and finally swaddled with strips of fine linen, partly inscribed with magical formulas and between which amulets are slipped. The result of all these operations is the mummy. The mummy is much more than a corpse: it is the figure of the god Osiris and a hieroglyphic representation of the whole human being, « full of magic, » as the Egyptians say.”vii

Then comes the time for words, prayers and invocations. « In Egyptian, this mortuary therapy by speech is expressed by a word that is fundamentally untranslatable, but which it is customary in Egyptology to render by « glorification » or « transfiguration ». The dead person is invoked by an uninterrupted stream of words (…) The dead person thus becomes a spirit endowed with power capable of surviving in many forms (…) Through the recitation of glorifications, the scattered limbs of the body are somehow brought together in a text that describes them as a new unity. »

The « glorification » and the « transfiguration » of the dead are reminiscent of those of Osiris. « It is the rites, images and texts that awaken Osiris and bring him back to life; it is with the help of symbolic forms that the dislocated dead is recomposed and that the border separating life and death, here below and beyond, is crossed. The mystery of this connectivity capable of triumphing over death, however, lies not in the symbolic forms, but in the love that puts them to work. Who performs the rites, pronounces the words and appears in images is anything but indifferent. It is first and foremost the affair of the goddess Isis, wife and twin sister of Osiris. On this point, the myth of Osiris and Isis corresponds moreover to that of Orpheus and Eurydice (…) For Isis, it is love which confers on her magical rites and recitations a force of cohesion able to supplement the inertia of the heart of Osiris and to bring the god back to life. The combination of love and speech is the strongest cohesive force known to Egyptians and at the same time the most powerful elixir of life.”viii

« Death of the god ». « Glorification ». « Transfiguration ». « Resurrection ». « Power of love. » It is difficult not to find in these themes possible parallels with the death and resurrection of Christ, even in certain details.

Christ’s last moments are described as follows: « As it was the Preparation, the Jews, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross during the Sabbath – for that Sabbath was a great day – asked Pilate to break their legs and take them away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and then of the other who had been crucified with him. When they came to Jesus, when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one of the soldiers pierced his side with his spear, and immediately blood and water came out of him. He who has seen bears witness, – his witness is true, and he knows that he speaks the truth – so that you too may believe. For this happened so that the Scripture might be fulfilled:

“Not a bone shall be broken to him.”ix

This word of Scripture is indeed found in the text of Exodus :

« YHVH said to Moses and Aaron, ‘This is the Passover ritual: no stranger shall eat of it. But any slave who has been bought for money, when you have circumcised him, may eat it. The resident and the hired servant shall not eat it. It will be eaten in one house, and you will not take any piece of meat out of that house. You shall not break any bones.”x

It must be hypothesized that the precept given to Moses by YHVH « not to break any bones » is a radical reversal of the « idolatrous » practices that were to be entirely abandoned. If the « pagan » priests were tearing off the limbs of animals, breaking bones and joints, one can think that Moses considered it useful to advocate a practice strictly contrary to this, in order to differentiate himself from it.

In contrast to the Egyptian cutting up of bodies, Dionysian dismemberment, or Greek maschalism, the members of Jesus’ body were left intact, so that the Scripture might be fulfilled.

On the eve of his death, however, Jesus symbolically shared his body and blood with his disciples at the Last Supper.

« As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat, this is my body. Then taking a cup, he gave thanks and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many for the remission of sins.”xi

Pagan practices consist in breaking the limbs of the victims who have been sacrificed and drinking their blood. Jesus breaks bread and drinks wine. This sacrifice is symbolic. But it is also a prefiguration of the real sacrifice that will take place, the very next day, on the cross.

The ancient shamanic sacrifices, the dismemberment of Osiris, the dilaceration of the body of Dionysus, the broken bread and the shared wine by Christ belong to very different cultures and spanning over several millennia.

But there is one thing in common: in all these cases, a God dies in sacrifice, and his remains are ‘shared’, ‘distributed’. Then the God is resurrected by the power of love and the word.

Given the striking analogy in these narrative patterns, we are led to make a hypothesis.

The hunting meal of the first hominids has been the beginning of religion since the dawn of time. It was during the chewing and eating of animal flesh that the idea of the permanence and transmission of the spirit attached to the bloody flesh insidiously came to haunt human consciences.

But then a conceptual leap, an incredible leap took place. It was imagined that the sacrificial victims were themselves only a distant image of the Supreme Sacrifice, that of God, the Lord of all creatures.

More than 6,000 years ago, in the great tradition of Veda, it was affirmed: « The Lord of creatures gives Himself to the gods as a sacrifice.”xii


iClement of Alexandria. Protrept. II, 12, 2

iiErwin Rohde. Psyché. Le culte de l’âme chez les Grecs et leur croyance à l’immortalité. Ed. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2017, p. 292

iiiIbid. p. 293 n.2

ivIbid. p. 293 n.2

vAeschylus. Choephori439. Quoted by Erwin Rohde. Psyché. Le culte de l’âme chez les Grecs et leur croyance à l’immortalité. Les Belles Lettres, 2017, p. 229.

viJan Assmann. Mort et au-delà dans l’Égypte ancienne. Ed. Du Rocher, 2003, p.59

viiIbid. p.60

viiiIbid. p.61

ixJn. 19, 31-36

xEx. 12, 43-46

xiMt. 26, 26-28

xiiTaņḍya-Mahā-Brāhmaņa 7.2.1

Bloody human body parts scattered

Drunk, the Bacchae rushed to the victims, skinning them with their bare hands, ripping their limbs off, and searching their internal organs. Their hands sticky with blood, they behead the unfortunate one who fell under the blows of sacred madness.

The Bacchanalians indeed represent, in the ancient Dionysian religion, a wild, extreme phenomenon. It is about getting drunk, taking part in nature’s orgy, and fully engaging in delirium and all its consequences.

It is in delirium that the metamorphosis can take place. There are several kinds of them.

The one of Harmony and Cadmos is spectacular. Snake scales gradually cover the body. First the feet, then the legs, then the hips, then the sex metamorphoses into sizzling, hideous snakes. Finally, the whole rest of the body is affected by this monstrous mutation.

The Dionysian religion is not a quiet one. Its followers are not immune to some degree of terror, of psychological or physical shock. But it is this metamorphosis that is the essential moment, after the wine of intoxication and the sharing of the members of the sacrificed victim.

Philostratus the Elder describes it this way: « Here are the choirs of the Bacchae, the stones dripping with wine, the grapes distilling the nectar, the clods of earth all shining with the brilliance of milk, here is the ivy with its creeping stem, the snakes raising their heads, the thyrsuses and the trees from which honey escapes drop by drop.

Behold this fir tree lying on the ground, its fall is the work of women violently agitated by Dionysus; by shaking it, the Bacchae made it fall with Pentheus whom they take for a lion; behold, they tear their prey, the aunts detach their hands, the mother drags her son by the hair (…)

Harmony and Cadmos are present. Already the lower extremities, from the thighs, are transformed into snakes, everything disappears under the scales from the feet to the hips; the metamorphosis spreads to the upper parts. Harmony and Cadmos are struck with horror; they kiss each other, as if, by this embrace, they had to stop their bodies in its flight and save at least what they still have left of the human form. »

From the point of view of comparative anthropology, it is tempting to consider possible analogies with other religions.

There are undoubtedly in the depths of human memory some ancient and indelible memories of ancient sacrifices, that will not be easily wiped away.

We could see for instance in the Bacchanals a distant analogy or an obscure link with the sacrifice of Christ, and the consumption of his blood and flesh shared among the faithful.

Of course, the sacrifice of Christ as celebrated by the Church is not an evolved, intellectualized version of an eminently wilder, more barbaric sacrificial paradigm, once celebrated in the name of the God Dionysus, in memory of his bloody and burning birth.

But it is nevertheless possible to see in it elements of analogy, and anthropological similarities, if only in the consumption of Christ’s « flesh » and « blood » by his disciples, at the height of communion.

The human mind, from age to age, has shown itself capable of designing paradigms that open universes, that play on all values, not to abolish them, but to guarantee the possibility of their continuing metamorphosis.

The Dionysian religion once incarnated one of these paradigms, and secretly continues to do so, metaphorically speaking, in the unconscious depths of humankind.

It is tempting to reflect on how Dionysian ideas may be embodied today in the excesses of contemporary humanity, and how they continue their secret life in our blind and thoughtless »modernity ».

Bloody human body parts scattered all over political crime scenes (resulting from targeted assassinations or downed civilian airplanes) continue to be regularly presented – in prime time – to worldwide audiences…

Brain Neurochemistry and Mystic Visions

The birth of Dionysus is worth telling. There is a precise description of it in the Imagines of Philostratus the Elder.

“A cloud of fire, after enveloping the city of Thebes, tears on the palace of Cadmos where Zeus leads a happy life with Semele. Semele dies, and Dionysus is really born under the action of the flame.

We can see the erased image of Semele rising towards the sky, where the Muses will celebrate his arrival with songs. As for Dionysus, he starts from the mother’s womb, thus torn, and shining like a star, he makes the brilliance of the fire pale with his own. The flame opens, sketching around Dionysus the shape of a cave[which is covered with consecrated plants].

The propellers, the berries of ivy, the vines already strong, the stems of which we make the thyrsus cover their contours, and all this vegetation comes out of the ground so willingly, that it grows partly in the middle of the fire. And let us not be surprised that the earth lays on the flames like a crown of plants.”

Philostratus ignores the fact that Semele had wanted to see the face of Zeus, her lover, and that this was the cause of her death. Zeus, kept by a promise he had made to her to fulfill all her desires, was forced to show his face of light and fire when she made the request, knowing that by doing so he would kill her, in spite of himself.

But he didn’t want to let the child she was carrying die, which was also his. Zeus took Dionysus out of his mother’s womb and put him in the great light, in a cloud of fire. However, Dionysus himself was already a being of fire and light. Philostratus describes how Dionysus’ own fire « makes Zeus’ own fire pale ».

It should be noted above all that the divine fire of Dionysus does not consume the sacred bushes that envelop his body at the time of his birth.

In a different context, Moses sees a burning bush, which is not consumed either. The Bible gives little detail on how the bush behaves in flames.

Philostratus, on the other hand, is a little more precise: a « crown of plants » floats above the fire. The metaphor of the crown is reminiscent of an aura, a halo, or the laurels surrounding the hero’s head. Except Dionysus is not a hero, but a God.

The idea of plants burning without burning in a « fire » of divine origin is counter-intuitive.

It is possible that this idea is a hidden metaphor. The inner fire of some plants, such as Cannabis, or other psychotropic plants, is a kind of fire that affects the mind, burns it indeed, but does not (usually) consume it. This inner fire, caused by plants capable of inducing shamanic visions and even divine ecstasies, is one of the oldest ways to contemplate mysteries.

This is one of the most valuable lessons from the experiences reported by shamans in Asia, Africa, or America.

What explains the powerful affinity between psychotropic plants, human brain neurochemistry and these ecstatic, divine visions?

Why is brain chemistry capable of generating a ‘vision’ of God from psychotropic stimuli?

Why is the active ingredient of cannabis, THC (Δ9 – tetrahydrocannabinol), capable, by binding to the CB1 and CB2 receptors, of delivering man to ecstasy, and to the vision of the divine, under certain conditions?

New ways of investigating the brain should be able to be used to detect the brain regions activated during these visions.

There are two main categories of assumptions.

Either the psychotropic mechanism is entirely internal to the brain, depending only on neurobiological processes, which can get out of hand when they are somehow looped around themselves.

Either these neurobiological processes are in reality only a façade, more or less shaped throughout the evolution of the human brain. They hide or reveal, depending on the case, our direct perception of a world that is still mysterious, a parallel world, generally inaccessible to sensitivity and consciousness.

The neurochemical processes disinhibited by THC release the brain, and during ecstasy give it the opportunity to access a meta-world, usually veiled, but very real, existing independently of human consciousness.

In that assumption, the neurochemistry of cannabis does not then generate « visions » by itself; it is only a key that opens the consciousness to a world that is inaccessible, most of the time, to weak human capacities.

Orpheus and Pythagoras

Orpheus descended to the Underworld and was initiated into the Mysteries of Isis and Osiris (those Gods called Demeter and Dionysus among the Greeks, Ceres and Bacchus, among the Romans). He established in Greece the cult of Hecate in Aegina, and that of Isis-Demeter in Sparta. His disciples, the Orphics, were at once marginal, individualistic, mystical, and loving life.

In contrast, the Pythagoreans, though also influenced by orphism, were « communist and austere », to use H. Lizeray’s formula. Socrates had said: « Everything is common, – between friends. »

If Pythagoras had a tendency towards « communism », and Orpheus towards « individualism”, what does it teach us, today, in terms of the fundamental aspirations of mankind?

The Egyptian Messiah

Human chains transmit knowledge acquired beyond the ages. From one to the other, you always go up higher, as far as possible, like the salmon in the stream.

Thanks to Clement of Alexandria, in the 2nd century, twenty-two fragments of Heraclitus (fragments 14 to 36 according to the numbering of Diels-Kranz) were saved from oblivion, out of a total of one hundred and thirty-eight.

« Rangers in the night, the Magi, the priests of Bakkhos, the priestesses of the presses, the traffickers of mysteries practiced among men.  » (Fragment 14)

A few words, and a world appears.

At night, magic, bacchae, lenes, mysts, and of course the god Bakkhos.

The Fragment 15 describes one of these mysterious and nocturnal ceremonies: « For if it were not in honour of Dionysus that they processioned and sang the shameful phallic anthem, they would act in the most blatant way. But it’s the same one, Hades or Dionysus, for whom we’re crazy or delirious.»

Heraclitus seems reserved about bacchic delusions and orgiastic tributes to the phallus.

He sees a link between madness, delirium, Hades and Dionysus.

Bacchus is associated with drunkenness. We remember the rubicond Bacchus, bombing under the vine.

Bacchus, the Latin name of the Greek god Bakkhos, is also Dionysus, whom Heraclitus likens to Hades, God of the Infernos, God of the Dead.

Dionysus was also closely associated with Osiris, according to Herodotus in the 5th century BC. Plutarch went to study the question on the spot, 600 years later, and reported that the Egyptian priests gave the Nile the name of Osiris, and the sea the name of Typhon. Osiris is the principle of the wet, of generation, which is compatible with the phallic cult. Typhoon is the principle of dry and hot, and by metonymy of the desert and the sea. And Typhon is also the other name of Seth, Osiris’ murdering brother, whom he cut into pieces.

We see here that the names of the gods circulate between distant spheres of meaning.

This implies that they can also be interpreted as the denominations of abstract concepts.

Plutarch, who cites in his book Isis and Osiris references from an even more oriental horizon, such as Zoroaster, Ormuzd, Ariman or Mitra, testifies to this mechanism of anagogical abstraction, which the ancient Avestic and Vedic religions practiced abundantly.

Zoroaster had been the initiator. In Zoroastrianism, the names of the gods embody ideas, abstractions. The Greeks were the students of the Chaldeans and the ancient Persians. Plutarch condenses several centuries of Greek thought, in a way that evokes Zoroastrian pairs of principles: « Anaxagoras calls Intelligence the principle of good, and that of evil, Infinite. Aristotle names the first the form, and the other the deprivationi. Plato, who often expresses himself as if in an enveloped and veiled manner, gives to these two contrary principles, to one the name of « always the same » and to the other, that of « sometimes one, sometimes the other ». »ii

Plutarch is not fooled by Greek, Egyptian or Persian myths. He knows that they cover abstract, and perhaps more universal, truths. But he had to be content with allusions of this kind: « In their sacred hymns in honour of Osiris, the Egyptians mentioned « He who hides in the arms of the Sun ». »

As for Typhon, a deicide and fratricide, Hermes emasculated him, and took his nerves to make them the strings of his lyre. Myth or abstraction?

Plutarch uses the etymology (real or imagined) as an ancient method to convey his ideas: « As for the name Osiris, it comes from the association of two words: ὄσιοϛ, holy and ἱερός, sacred. There is indeed a common relationship between the things in Heaven and those in Hades. The elders called them saints first, and sacred the second. »iii

Osiris, in his very name, osios-hieros, unites Heaven and Hell, he combines the holy and the sacred.

The sacred is what is separated.

The saint is what unites us.

Osiris joint separated him to what is united.

Osiris, victor of death, unites the most separated worlds there are. It represents the figure of the Savior, – in Hebrew the « Messiah ».

Taking into account the anteriority, the Hebrew Messiah and the Christian Christ are late figures of Osiris.

Osiris, a Christic metaphor, by anticipation? Or Christ, a distant Osirian reminiscence?

Or a joint participation in a common fund, an immemorial one?

This is a Mystery.

iAristotle, Metaph. 1,5 ; 1,7-8

iiPlato Timaeus 35a

iiiPlutarch, Isis and Osiris.

The ‘God of the Gods’ and the’ Idolaters’

Secrets are to be kept untold, and to remain so. But what about their very existence? The owners of essential (or even divine) secrets, though not allowed to reveal any of their content, sometimes give in to the temptation to allude to the fact that they are the custodians of them.

They cannot and will not reveal anything, of course, but they maybe inclined to leak that they know ‘something’, that could be revealed some day, though it has to remain secret, for the time being.

Of course, this attitude is childish, and dangerous.

Exciting the curiosity of outsiders brings problems, and can turn sour.

If a secret is a secret, then it has to be absolutely kept secret, and its very existence has also to be kept hidden.

Voltaire points out the problem that those claiming big, ‘magical’ secrets may encounter: « Let us see some secret of your art, or agree to be burned with good grace, » he writes in the article « Magic » of his Philosophical Dictionary.

Secrecy, magic and religion have had, over the centuries, chaotic, contradictory and confrontational relationships. Those who openly claimed knowledge of higher levels of understanding, but who refused to share them, were exposed to jealousy, anger, hatred and ultimately violence. They could be accused of fraud or heresy, so much the vaunted knowledge of ultimate secrets could be a source of cleavage, of suspicion.

The famous Magi kings came from Mesopotamia, or present-day Iran, to pay tribute to a newborn child, in Bethlehem, bringing gold, incense and myrrh in their luggage. Undoubtedly, they were also carriers of deep secrets. As Magi, they must have known the mysteries of Mithra, the achievements of the Zoroastrian tradition and maybe some other teachings from further East.

In those days, ideas, mystical traditions and mysteries were traveling fast.

There is no doubt for instance that the Latin word ‘deus’ (god) came all the way from the vedic ‘deva’, which is a Sanskrit word.

According to Franz Cumont, a ‘deva’, in the Veda, is first and foremost, a « being of light », and by a metaphorical extension a « god ». One also finds, in Avestic texts of Zend-Avesta, attributed to Zoroaster, the very similar term of ‘daêva’, but with a very different meaning.

« Daêvas » are not « gods », they are « devils », evil spirits, hostile to the beneficial power of Ahura Mazda, the Good and Almighty God of Zoroastrianism. This inversion of meaning, « gods » (deva) being turned into « devils » (daêva), is striking.

The peoples of ancient Iran borrowed their gods and much of their religion from the neighboring people in the Indus basin, but reversed the meaning of some key words, probably to better distinguish themselves from their original tribes.

Why this need to stand out, to differentiate oneself?

Jan Assman in his book, Moses the Egyptian, points to the fact that the Hebrews reportedly borrowed a number of major ideas from the ancient Egyptian religion, such as monotheism, as well as the practice of sacrifice, but then « inverted » the meaning of some of these fundamental ideas.

Assmann calls this borrowing followed by an inversion, the « Mosaic distinction ».

For example, the ‘Bull’ stands for a sacred representation of the God Apis among Egyptians, and the bull is thus a ‘sacred’ animal, just as in India cows are.

But, following the « Mosaic distinction’, the Hebrews sacrificed without restraint cattle and sheep, which were considered sacred in Egypt.

The Veda and the Zend Avesta keep track of the genesis and decadence of almost forgotten beliefs. These texts form an essential milestone for the understanding of religions that were later developed further west, in the Chaldea, Babylon, Judea-Samaria. The clues are fragile, but there are many avenues for reflection.

For example, the Avestic god Mithra is a « God of the Hosts », which reminds us of the Elohim Tsabaoth of the Hebrews. He is the Husband and Son of a Virgin and Immaculate Mother. Mithra is a Mediator, close to the Logos, the word by which Philo of Alexandria, Jewish and Hellenophone, translates Wisdom (Hokhmah), celebrated by the Hebrew religion, and also close to the Evangelical Logos.

As such, Mithra is the Intermediary between the Almighty Divine Power and the created world. This idea has been taken up by Christianity and Jewish Kabbalah. In the cult of Mithra, sacraments are used, where wine, water and bread are the occasion for a mystical banquet. This is close to the rites of the Jewish Sabbath or Christian Communion.

These few observations indicate that there is no lack of continuity in the wide geographical area from Indus to Oxus, Tigris, Euphrates, Jordan and Nile to Greece and Rome. On this immense arc, fundamental beliefs, first intuitions, sowing seeds among peoples, intersect and meet.

The Vedic Mitra, the Avestic Mithra are figures that announce Orpheus and Dionysus. According to an etymology that borrows its sources from the language of Avesta, Dionysus must be understood as an Avestic name : div-an-aosha, that is: « the God of the drink of immortality ».

The Jews themselves, guardians of the tradition of the one God, bear witness to the antiquity of the belief, common to all the peoples of this vast region, in the God of the Gods. « As our masters note, the Name of the God of the Gods has always been a common tradition among idolaters.»i

The prophet Malachi also said: « For from sunrise to sunset, my Name is great among the nations. »ii

One can assume that ‘monotheism’, whatever the exact meaning given to this relatively recent concept, therefore has a very long history, and extremely old roots.

The intuition of a God of the gods has undoubtedly occupied the minds of men for thousands of years, long before it took on the monotheistic form that we know today.

iRabbi Hayyim de Volozhin. L’âme de la vie

iiMalachie 1, 11

A Jewish « Kenosis »

How could an Almighty God, creator of the worlds, let himself be put to death by his own creatures? Mystery. To designate this lowering, this humiliation, this annihilation of the divine, Christianity uses the word kenosis, from the Greek verb kenoô, « to empty oneself, to strip oneself, to annihilate oneself ». This word was first used by the Epistle of Paul to the Philippiansi.

But the idea of God’s death is much older. It can be found in the centuries preceding Christianity in quite different forms, it is true, for example among the Greeks with the death of Dionysus killed by the Titans, but also among the Egyptians with the murder of Osiris and his dismemberment by Seth, his own brother.

Among Jews, with the concept of tsimtsum (from the Hebrew צמצום, contraction), there is also this idea of a « God who empties himself ». It is a concept of late appearance since it is due to Isaac Louria in Ari Zal (Safed, 16th century), who uses it to explain a point of Kabbalah :

Before the creation of the worlds, God was everything, everywhere, and nothing was without Him. But when God decided to create the worlds, he had to give them a place so that they could be. God withdrew his original light, or qadoum. In the void thus created, called reshimou (« imprint », from the verb rashama, « write ») a light emanated from God, or néetsal. This emanated light constitutes the olam ha-Atziluth, the world of Emanation. Then are generated the olam haBeryah or world of Creation, the olam haYetzirah or world of Formation and the olam haAssiya or world of Action, – which contains our world. The light emanating from it therefore undergoes several contractions, compressions, or « dissimulations », which are all tsimtsum.

This word comes from the verb צָמַם tsamam, which has a wide spectrum of meaning: « to put an end to, exterminate, silence, annihilate, compress, contract, squeeze, veil, hide, observe closely, define exactly, certify », which is described in Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of Targumim Talmud and Midrashic Literature (1926). From this rich range, the word tsimtsum probably brings out the harmonics.

Here are some of them, taken from a Kabbalah lesson by Baruch Shalom Alevi Ashlag. The reason why the emanated Light cascades through the four created worlds, Atziluth, Beryah, Yatzirah and Assiya, is that the « desire to receive » must at each step be increased accordingly. For there can be no divine creation without an equally divine desire to « receive » this creation.

In the beginning, there is an abundance of Light created, emanating from the divine essence. Correlatively there must be an abundance of desire to receive this light. But this desire to receive cannot appear in the world ex nihilo. Desire is itself created. It is called Kli ְכְּלִי , a word whose primary meaning is: « thing done, thing made ». It is also called, less metaphorically, Guf (« the body »). The Kli must « receive », « lock », « hold » the light in him (as the root verb כָּלַא indicates).

Here, a little aside. The Kli can be said to be a piece of furniture, a vase, a garment, a suit, a ship, an instrument or a weapon. Here again, all the harmonics of these various senses can undoubtedly be applied to make the Kli resonate in its role as a receptacle of light, – in its role as a soul, therefore. Sander and Trenel’s dictionary says that Kli comes from the root verb כֶּלֶה (kalah), a close word to ֶכָּלַא (kala’), already mentioned. The verb kalah offers an interesting spectrum of meaning: to be made, completed, ready; to be resolved; to disappear, to miss, to be consumed, to perish, to languish; to finish; to consume, to exterminate.

Believing that words serve as a memorial to millenary experiences, I would think that all these meanings apply in one way or another to kli in its possible relationship with light.

Divine light, falling into the different worlds, spreads and at the same time contracts, folds, or veils itself, to let the desire to be received by the Kli grow, by this receptacle, this desire, this soul or this « body », this Kli which is at the root of the created creature. The Kli, who was previously part of the Light, must now distinguish himself from it in order to receive it better; he must separate himself from it in order to desire it better. He desires it as Or Hokhma (the Light of Wisdom) or Or Haya (the Light of Life), or Or Hassadim (the Light of Mercy). The Kli is therefore determined according to the degree of expansion of the Light and also according to its degree of exit from it.

Wise men commented on these questions as follows: « There is crying in inner dwellings ».

This means that when the Light arrives in the lower worlds, and it does not find a Kli wishing to receive it, it remains « interior », unrevealed, and then « there is crying ». But when she finds a Kli who desires her, she can reveal herself on the outside, and then « vigour and joy are in His place », and everything becomes visible.

i Ph. 2, 6-9 « Lui, de condition divine, ne retint pas jalousement le rang qui l’égalait à Dieu. Mais il s’anéantit (εκένωσεν) lui-même, prenant condition d’esclave, et devenant semblable aux hommes. S’étant comporté comme un homme, il s’humilia plus encore, obéissant jusqu’à la mort, et à la mort sur une croix !  Aussi Dieu l’a-t-il exalté et lui a-t-il donné le Nom qui est au-dessus de tout nom. »

Devouring the dead God


Orpheus, who went down to the underworld, has an amazing resumé. He invented poetry, which is no small thing. He called Apollo « the living eye of Heaven », and « the one who shapes everything in the world ». He also saw with his own eyes the primordial Chaos dominated by Love.

The main sources on Orpheus are two poets, Virgil and Ovid. Referring to some Christian and Neoplatonist authors, he was also recruited to embody a kind of pagan image of the Word.

The name Orpheus, has no recognized etymology but Chantraine believes that it can be linked to the Indo-European *orbho, « separate, remove », hence the Latin orbus, « deprived of ». This refers, of course, to Eurydice.

The myth of Orpheus dates back to before the 6th century BC since a statue of Orpheus playing the lyre was found dating back to 560 BC.

Orpheus gave his name to a mystical current, orphism, known by hymns, and various texts and archaeological inscriptions including the Golden Lamellae. The general idea is that the soul, soiled from the beginning, must undergo a cycle of reincarnations from which only initiation into the mysteries of Orpheus can bring it out. Then she is allowed to join the Gods.

Orphism has never been a socially organized religion. On the contrary, orphism challenged the established order, rejected the values of the Greek cities and their cults. One became orphic by personal choice, after initiation.

Onomacrite was responsible for the writing of the first compilation of poems and orphic hymns. This singular character had been commissioned by Pisistrate, around 525 BC, to prepare the first complete edition of Homer’s poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. He was also a diviner, an initiate in mysteries, who traded in oracles. Herodotus tells us that Greek tyrants, dethroned and refugees at the court of Persia, the Pisistratids, called upon his talents to invent oracles in order to incite Xerxes I to start the second medieval war in 481 B.C.

Religion and politics were in close alliance. The city of Delphi and its Pythia, oracle of Apollo, had also taken the side of the Persians. The battle of Salamis proved them wrong. After the Greek victory, Delphi claimed to have been protected by divine intervention. Herodotus attests it: « As the Barbarians approached the temple of Minerva Pronaea, lightning fell on them; rocky quarters, detaching themselves from the top of the Parnassus and rolling with a horrible noise, crushed a great number of them. At the same time, voices and war cries were heard coming out of the temple of Minerva Pronaea. » i

Aristophanes makes fun of Orphic sects in The Birds. He denounces its charlatanism. Plato and Theophrastus present them as gyrovagal priests, selling cheap purifications to a gullible public.


However, the Orphic ideas were conscientiously taken up by neo-Pythagoreans and Neo-Platonists.

The main myth of orphism is the killing of Dionysus by the Titans, who cut him into pieces and then devoured him. Furious, Zeus struck down the latter, and from their ashes were born humans.

Men therefore have a double ancestry. They descend from the Titans, but also from the Gods, through the flesh of devoured Dionysus, also being part of the ashes from which humans are derived. There is an analogy, if not obvious at all, with Christian communion.

Christ was put to death, and his followers share his flesh and blood in memory of him.

Let’s go back to the Dionysian myth.

Persephone, Dionysus-Zagreus’ mother, never forgave the murder and devouring of her son. She then condemned man to wander unceasingly, from incarnation to incarnation. How could offspring from the ashes, from the corpses of the Titans, these eaters of God, be allowed to enter the divine world?

The gold or bone slides found in various tombs indicate that the Orphic and Pythagorean sects gave the initiates hope of deliverance upon their arrival in the afterlife. But on one condition, not to go the wrong way. If one turns left, it’s the fatal mistake. One falls into the spring of Lethe, which plunges the soul into oblivion. If you turn right, it’s the right choice. You find the source of the goddess Mnemosyne who reminds souls of their memory and reminds them of their divine origin.

The golden slice that the deceased initiate takes with him to his grave is a kind of reminder:

« You will find a spring to the left of Hades’ house,

and near her, standing up, a white cypress tree:

from this source, stay away from it.

You will find a second source, the cold water that flows

of Lake Mnemosyne; in front of them stand guards.

Say: « I am the son of the Earth and the Starry Sky;

my race is heavenly, and you know that too…

I am dried up from thirst and I will perish: give me therefore

quickly the cold water that flows from Lake Memory.

And they themselves will give you something to drink from the divine source;

and from that moment on, among the other heroes, you will rule.

And from that moment on, with the other heroes, you will be sovereign. » ii

iHérodotus, VIII, 35-38

iiLamelles d’or orphiques. Instructions pour le voyage d’outre-tombe des initiés grecs, lamelle de Pétélia ( 5th century BC), Ed. by Giovanni Pugliese Carratelli, Les Belles Lettres, 2003, p. 61.