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.