The myth of Orpheus, because of its relationship with the mystical power or mystery cult known as Orphism, is perhaps the one from Greek mythology which has generated the most studies and debates among experts, who even take care to distinguish between legend and myth.
We will first examine the different stages of spiritual growth that the evolutions of the myth reveal; then we will study, without going into detail, the myth of the dismembering of Dionysus specific to Orphism.
We will not study the Orphic cosmogonies, nor the rites and beliefs attached to this particular religion. The latter seems to have been reserved for followers of a yoga of knowledge associated with a deep desire for purification. It is probably the same spirit which led the Cathars of France, from the Greek Katharoi “the pure ones”, in an altogether different context.
If we consider that only very great heroes such as Ulysses or Heracles were able to venture into Hades, then Orpheus should be regarded as their precursor, maybe their initiator, or even as a hero of the same stature. Let’s remember that a “descent” into Hades is a dive into the physical unconscious, which requires prior mental and vital liberation. Theseus and his friend Pirithoos who had not acquired the corresponding stature remained prisoners. We will see in a later chapter that Euripides is the first to have mentioned the deliverance of Theseus by Heracles, but that in all likelihood, the ancient versions mentioned irreversible punishment.
However, no primitive myth makes Orpheus the hero of a great epic, even if he seems to have been famous throughout the Greek world as early as the 6th century BC.
Other examples of heroes who were able to return from the kingdom of Hades, such as Sisyphus and Alceste, did not enter there voluntarily and could only be “released” with the permission of Persephone or Hades or after the intervention of Heracles.
The initiating function of Orpheus had to be developed over time until the myth could cover the initiations into small as well as great Mysteries. In the small mysteries, the role of Orpheus was only the one of a musician and a poet (bard), while the most advanced initiations of the great Mysteries were related to the voluntary descent of the hero into the underworld.
This is the reason why, in the quest of the Golden Fleece by Jason, the descent of Orpheus into the kingdom of Hades is not mentioned, an incursion which must have been well known by the poet. That quest belongs to the beginning of the path, and the Orpheus of the Argonautica of Apollonius has no other role than singing and keeping the beat, together with initiating the Argonauts to the mysteries of Samothrace.
It is most likely because of this role of initiator that Orpheus got his reputation of transmitter of the story of the dismemberment of Dionysus, which is the basis of the Orphic beliefs about immortality of the soul.
Orpheus as initiator of the first phase of the path
Neither Homer nor Hesiod mention Orpheus. Also, he does not seem to appear in archaic art. The most ancient vases where he is represented date from the first half of the 5th century BC.
Some ancient authors who considered Orpheus a historical character ranked him among the mythical poets who preceded Homer for several generations and made him a son of Apollo.
Among these mythical poets were also Eumolpos and Philammon.
Eumolpos “who sings and dances well” or “a noble song that sounds right” is therefore the symbol of a just and true harmony in acts as in their expression. The late authors make him a son of Poseidon and the father of Museum. He was considered the founder of the Eleusian mysteries and the first priest of Demeter and Dionysus.
Philammon “who loves the consecration, self-giving (or who likes the sun god Ammon)” is son of Apollo “the god of the manifestation of the light of truth in the mental consciousness” and Chione “evolution of the focusing of consciousness” and was the father of Thamyris. In some traditions, he was the half-brother of Autolycus “who is for himself his own light” or “what radiates its own light”.
According to Pherecydes, it is Philammon and not Orpheus, who was with the Argonauts. In this variant, the author’s stress is on consecration, the manifestation of the psychic light and the focusing of consciousness, while Orpheus emphasizes the work of incarnation, purification and the opening of consciousness.
So, if Orpheus does not appear in the older texts, he is, however, mentioned as early as the 6th century BC in the works of Ibycos as a great musician, poet and singer, belonging to the Argonaut clan.
He is also found in Delphi in the building of the same period known as the Sicyonian Monopteros on which he appears unambiguously as an Argonaut. At the end of the same century, the poet Simonides attributed supernatural gifts to Orpheus: birds surrounded him and fish jumped out of the water to the rhythm of his music. Apollonius, Bacchylides and Euripides went on in this “magical” vein, some even in an exaggerated way by involving trees and rocks in the procession.
Pindar, at the beginning of the 6th century BC., mentions him also as one of the Argonauts. He makes him a messenger of Apollo, and as such, the father of music.
The initial myth can be summarized thus:
The father of Orpheus was Oeagrus considered by some as the king of Thrace. His mother was the muse Kalliope (Calliope) daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Orpheus was famous for his wisdom, his talents as a singer and musician. He played beautifully on the lyre and zither whose invention was sometimes attributed to him; it was even said that he knew how to play tunes so sweet that wild beasts followed him.
He took part in the quest for the Golden Fleece organized under the leadership of Jason, where the Argonauts avoided succumbing to the sirens by his chants. Another time he appeased the raging waves. Being the only “initiate” of the group, he was not rowing, but set the pace. As such, he initiated his travelling companions, the Argonauts, in the mysteries of Samothrace.
In this myth, he fulfils the role defined by the symbolism of his name obtained with the structuring letters ΡΦ: “the right action of consciousness in man”. From this true movement a “radiance” is brought forth.
(Cf. the words formed on the root Φα, Φη, Φω, Φυ, “to shine”. With the Rho in the sense of inversion, we also get words like ορφνη “darkness, obscurity” and ορφανος “he who is without parents or children. Some parts of the myth could be interpreted on this basis: Orpheus, losing faith, turning away from the light.)
This is the only characteristic acknowledged by Apollonius (in the 3rd century BC.) who described him as the spiritual guide of the group. He can cover with his voice the song of the sirens and thus fight against the most dangerous forms of seduction related to “idealizations”, or to the expression of a strong desire to find again a true knowledge or a harmonized state of consciousness now lost. (See what has been said about the sirens in the study of the myth of the Golden Fleece.)
Embodying a double capacity of receptivity and transmission, Orpheus represents at this stage of the path the highest harmony the seeker can demonstrate in the quest for the state where each thing is in its proper place (the non-mixture or purity).
Beating time and exempted from rowing, he marks the right moment of each act for its beginning, middle and end. So, the Truth is revealed to us by our growing ability to harmonize accurately with the movement of creation, in small as in large things. Obedience to the law of rhythm is in fact the true mastery.
We are also told that he can appease the raging waves; the waves here being the symbol of the vital world (passions, emotions and feelings), it also represents the ability of the seeker to use his higher consciousness to control his vital movements.
Having received the initiation into the mysteries of Samothrace, he encourages the Argonauts to get initiated as well: “the same night, on the order of Orpheus, they came to the island of Atlantis Electra to learn, by strange initiations, secret rites that would allow them to sail safely on the frightening sea.”
The scholars associate the island of Atlantis Electra with the island of Samothrace located south of Thrace, not far from the Trojan coast. The initiations that were performed there concerned the lower planes of the mind up to the illumined mind (Electra is the fifth Pleiades, daughter of Atlas). Indeed, although very few details about the secret rites have survived, we will rely on the story of Apollonius in order to situate this episode at the beginning of the quest. We then can assume that this is only the first level of “the initiation into the mysteries” or “muesis” which gave the rank of mystes (word composed on the verbe μυω “to be silent” – which was an imperative demand made to the candidates -, or “to close the eyes” in the sense of an inner reversal). The second and highest degree of initiation “the epopteia” or “contemplation” gave access to the rank of epopte. Although some authors claim that the two degrees could be obtained at Samothrace, it is more likely that the second initiation could be obtained only in Eleusis. In this sanctuary, the rite of “the ear of wheat” was associated with him; he symbolized the perfection of the work of Demeter “the mother of the union” and thus the completion of the purification-liberation process.
The faculties that characterize Orpheus as a “priest” of the Argonauts are emotional control and the first initiatory skills leading to spiritual discernment, accuracy and harmony.
Orpheus is a native of Thrace, the province of asceticism. Apollonius gives him a human father Oeagrus (Oiagros) “work on consciousness” and a divine father, Apollo.
According to other authors, Oeagrus is either the son of Ares “the god who ensures the right renewal of forms”, or the son of Pieros “abundance, opulence”, or the son of the king of Thrace Charops “with bright gaze”, or, for the mythographers, a river god, that is, a movement of evolution of consciousness. For Asclepiades, Orpheus is only the son of Apollo).
By his divine father Apollo, he is related to the first luminous manifestations of the psychic being.
His mother was Calliope “a beautiful voice” (perhaps also “a beautiful vision”). Hesiod presents her as being by far the most noble of the nine muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Indeed, her “beautiful voice” is a sign of the true word and therefore creative. She represents the necessary condition for the birth of Orpheus. The Muses being the daughters of Mnemosyne, it is more about finding the true word than inventing it.
There are two groups of Muses: those which are related to Zeus and who live close to Olympus and those related to Apollo. Calliope belongs to the first of these groups.
The place of his birth is Mount Pimpleia, the place of the aspiration “which fulfills”.
As the king of Thrace, he represents what directs the quest at this point of the path.
Apollonius also takes the pretext for the presentation of Orpheus to do a brief review of the history of evolution: initially, he tells us, the great snake Ophion and his wife Eurynome ruled, symbols of the penetration of consciousness in humans and evolution where everything was going according to the “right order”, where everything was in its place. Then, when the time came for the development of purely human consciousness, Kronos drove them into the Ocean (in the water of evolution of consciousness) and that was the reign of the Golden Age and the childhood of Zeus, the period of human vital evolution. Then came the rise of Zeus and his coming to power as in the traditional cosmogony.
The second phase of the path: Orpheus and Eurydice or the descent into the physical unconscious
The story of Orpheus descending into the kingdom of Hades to bring back his wife appears at the beginning of the 5th century. It illustrates an investigation of the physical unconscious by a “right movement of evolution of consciousness”.
It is indeed between 550 and 450 BC., (the period of the Tragic poets Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and also of Pindar, Herodotus, Bacchylides and Simonides) that the bases of the myth were laid, as it was reported in all its details much later by Virgil and Ovid at the turn of the millennium.
As for the name of the wife of Orpheus, Eurydice, she is not mentioned before the 3rd century BC.
From the moment it became clear that spiritual evolution, in the most advanced phases, involved an exploration of the physical unconscious – long after the first experience with the Self or the psychic being – the character of Orpheus must have been connected in one way or another with the myth of Demeter and his daughter Persephone. It is indeed the latter who represented by her going and coming between Hades and the surface of the Earth, the flow of consciousness between the conscious and the physical unconscious.
This evolution of the myth can be compared to the dismemberment of Dionysus in Orphism. The hero-god, first called Zagreus, there is the son of Zeus and Persephone, and therefore the symbol of an impulsion’s work from the supraconscient to penetrate the unconscious.
Dionysus, as we have just seen, represents ‘the penetration of the Divine in the soul’, the mystic ecstasy on the path of liberation and purification.
The Orphic myth of Dionysus-Zagreus dismembered by the Titans and then brought back to life by Zeus or Apollo, may represent the main phases of the ultimate evolution of yoga, knowing that it begins at the point where the young Zagreus has already reached the level of the Overmind (as from birth, he handles the lightning of Zeus). Following his dismemberment by the Titans, the different parts of Zagreus’ body are boiled and then burned; thus is set out the purification process to achieve the psychisation of the being and then prepare the final stage of the supramental transformation. This requires that each part of the being, isolated from the rest, is purified by water and fire to obtain immortality and eternal youth – unity in diversity and the capacity to renew itself indefinitely – before the New Dionysus could be “born”.
The different approaches of the myth of Dionysus, from the simplest one considering him as the god of drunkenness to the most elaborate ones, could therefore give rise over the centuries to various spiritual movements and practices. Dionysian official religions developed with their own rites, bacchic religions, and also a more mystical doctrine with its own theology, Orphism. The latter, which included many currents, was close to the “paths of knowledge” and seems to have been reserved for a spiritual and intellectual elite who sought a more effective and therefore stricter asceticism.
We are then in the presence of many sources that often mingle and deserve a special approach. Initially, we will limit ourselves to the study of the refined myth without taking into account the many developments to which it gave rise and excluding the purely Orphic elements.
Among the Tragic poets, Aeschylus evokes the extraordinary events surrounding Orpheus while Sophocles ignores the hero. Regarding Euripides, he mentions his descent into the kingdom of Hades, his relation with Dionysus, his stay in the forests of Olympus and he makes him the founder of the Mysteries.
In the Banquet of Plato, Orpheus managed to go down to the underworld Kingdom, but he found only a “shadow” of his wife, who could not leave the place: he was driven out of Hades by the gods who showed him “a ghost of the woman for which he had come, but did not give her person because he seemed to have a weak soul, something fairly natural for a zither player; and he did not have the courage to die for her love like Alcestis, but had instead used his talent to enter, alive, into Hades. And that’s certainly the reason why they imposed a penalty on him and made death come to him by women”.
It seems that Plato went on like this in his denigration of what he regarded as stories bound to mislead the mind.
The historian Pausanias, in the 2nd century AD., goes even further in the denial of the capacities of Orpheus, transforming the descent into Hades into a simple divination: Orpheus went to consult an oracle who had the art to conjure the dead and as he wanted to grasp the shadow of Eurydice, she escaped and he killed himself in despair.
Eratosthenes in the 3rd century BC, according to what came to us indirectly, would have spoken of Orpheus in these terms: “once he came down into Hades because of his wife, seeing what kinds of things were there, he ceased to worship Dionysus thanks to whom he got his fame and felt that Helios was the greatest of the gods, Helios whom he invoked under the name of Apollo”.
The author expresses a rejection not only of the exploration of the physical unconscious in the face of the difficulties met at the roots of life, but also of the psychic realization. By the attitude of Orpheus, he confers the primacy to the supramental light (Helios) that he confuses with the light of the psychic being (Apollo). It seems obvious that the author was not an initiate and got only a glimpse of the deep meaning of the myth.
It is the poet Moschus at the 3rd century B.C. who was the first to mention the name of Eurydice.
Finally, the more elaborate versions of the myth have been transmitted to us by Virgil and Ovid at the beginning of our era.
The more sober version is that of Ovid (The Metamorphoses, books 10 and 11):
Orpheus, in love with his wife Eurydice, lost her the day of the wedding when she was bitten in the heel by a snake while she was walking in the fields. Inconsolable, he decided to search for her in the kingdom of shadows. He charmed so well the dog Cerberus by his singing that he let him enter. Then he asked Hades and Persephone to “undo the weft” of Eurydice’s fate. The deities could not resist the prayer of Orpheus, but agreed under one condition: so long as the journey back to the light would last, he could not look back under any circumstances.
While he travelled on a steep trail, dark and shrouded in a thick fog, Orpheus, fearing that his beloved eluded him and impatient to see her, turned around. Eurydice was immediately driven backwards and died a second time. Orpheus could not make the guardians of the underworld yield despite his entreaties and had to return to the surface of the Earth, inconsolable.
The word ‘”hell” derived from the Latin “infernus” and in this context means “place from below”. In the Christian Greek scriptures, the word “Hades” is often used in its place.
The filiation of Orpheus has not changed since the primitive version. Oeagrus is his human father, Apollo, his divine father. Some authors refer only to one of the two. His mother is most often Calliope, more rarely another Muse, Polymnia.
According to the letters of his name, this hero symbolizes the right movement of penetration of the higher consciousness into the being (ΡΦ). By his descent, he expresses the work done for a “virginity of the existence-consciousness” (Oeagrus) and/or the impetus given by the light of the psychic being (Apollo). This work needs to be done for a “true expression” (Calliope) that should allow the seeker to “remember” his primordial divine condition (Calliope is daughter of Mnemosyne).
He is king of Thrace and therefore a movement leading the practice in the quest.
In earlier versions, the name of Orpheus’ wife is not indicated. The wife of a hero being the symbol of the aim he pursues, her disappearance implies the loss of vision or meaning of the path.
Generally, when the seeker meets the purifying “nights” accompanied by a loss of reference points, he tries to stay in touch with his inner being until a “light” appears. For Orpheus, however, it’s not a descent into the subconscious (the world of Poseidon), but a dive into the physical unconscious, the realm of Hades. This part of the myth concerns the most advanced seekers who reached the level of the twelfth labour of Heracles.
In a sense, the myth of Orpheus would therefore cover the totality of the path, from the quest for the Golden Fleece (or search for a refined sensitivity) to the descent into the physical consciousness.
From Moschus, the authors agree to name the intended purpose “Eurydice”, without linking this heroine to a specific family tree, however.
The name Eurydice comes from the words Euru (Ευρυ) “vast, wide” and Dike (Δικη) “the imperative rule” (and/or “how to be or act”). The union of Orpheus and Eurydice would therefore express that the seeker follows the “mandatory rules” that govern evolution, that he aspires to a “right way to act”. There is disagreement among the experts on the meaning of the word Δικη but in this study, both meanings are possible insofar as the “right way” is associated with this moment of the path of obedience to rules.
But soon Eurydice was bitten in the heel by a snake. As in all traditions, the snake here symbolizes evolution. The bite in the heel could mean that the seeker has engaged in an evolutionary process close to matter. But most importantly, it indicates the loss of contact with unity. This image can be compared with the text of Genesis which expresses the exit from the “intuition” period: “And the Lord God said to the snake: because you have done this, cursed you are more than all the cattle and more than all the beasts of the field. And upon your belly you shall go and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will set enmity between you and the woman and between your posterity and her posterity: she will crush your head and you will smite her heel.” (Genesis 3.14)
Orpheus losing Eurydice, the adventurer of consciousness is deprived of the “mandatory laws” which were his guide up to this point. He must venture into the depths of physical consciousness, in the memories of evolution, looking for a new path. The name Eurydice would therefore confirm the symbolism of the loss of the wife.
From the fact that the deities of the underworld ordered Orpheus not to turn around as long as he had not come back to the light (the moment when he can contemplate his wife), we can deduce that during the crossing in the physical yoga, the seeker should not dwell on the rules of the past, nor look for new ones as long as they are not clearly communicated to his consciousness. Such would be the law imposed by the power that ensures the spirit-matter union, Hades.
It seems that in some versions, Orpheus overcame the ordeal by “proving the teachings of Dionysus” i.e. demonstrating the merits of both aspiration and surrender to the Divine which brings ecstatic joy.
But in the more well-known versions, he fails: the seeker does not retain an unshakable faith in the divine power because he aspires to find again “great laws.” He cannot go beyond his belief in the so-called absolute laws of the body. The Agenda of the Mother amply underlines this difficulty
Thus, the laws of transformation cannot be known until the work is done.
The version of Virgil
This author’s account deserves a closer look, because not only does he emphasize the fact that it is a very advanced stage of the path, but especially he puts in opposition two destinies: the one of Orpheus who succumbed due to lack of faith and then was dismembered by the women of Thrace, and the one of Aristaeus who, having integrated the dramatic narrative of the error of Orpheus, made the necessary sacrifices and regained his dear bees, symbols of the work towards non-duality.
Virgil introduced the story of Orpheus with a long digression on the breeding of bees.
In this introduction, the queen is a king and reproduction occurs because the bees “adopt hatched worms from the bosom of the flowers”. Considering the symbolism of bees linked to the psychic being, this passage is interesting. Indeed, since bee-keeping was practiced from time immemorial, the Ancients could not have misunderstood their mode of reproduction. Virgil also states that “the bee, helping the Corybantes, feeds the young King of heaven (Zeus) in his crib” and with it, everything is put “in common”.
Then, having explained that the people whom the Nile floods the furrows was evidence of the power of the art of bee-keeping, he explains how an innumerable swarm arose from the bowels of a bull sacrificed according to specific rules.
He then continues with the story of Aristaeus, in these terms:
Aristaeus had many bees which one day began to starve. He went to complain to his mother, the nymph Cyrene who resided at the bottom of the river Peneus. She said that only Proteus, son of Poseidon, could solve his torment because he “knew the past, the present and the future”. But Aristaeus had to be careful because Proteus changed his shape constantly, taking in turn that of a furious tiger, a huge boar, a lion, fire or a roaring torrent.
Aristaeus having overcome Proteus, the latter informed him that his misfortune was that he had once pursued Eurydice and that she was bitten by a snake as she was running, causing the despair of Orpheus.
Virgil developed then the end of the story of Orpheus in a manner very similar to that of Ovid, as we have studied above. Then he ends the story of Aristaeus thus:
When he had finished his story, Proteus disappeared into the sea.
Cyrene tells her son that he had to appease the anger of the nymphs, companions of Eurydice, by offering a sacrifice of four bulls and four heifers. In addition, he had to sacrifice a black sheep to Orpheus and a heifer to the manes of Eurydice.
Aristaeus did as recommended by his mother and swarms of bees came out from the flanks of the bulls.
The origin of Aristaeus is not mentioned by Virgil. We have seen in this chapter the one given by Pindar in the study of the myth of Actaeon, the son he had from Autonoe. In this story Aristaeus “the best” is a son of “the light of the psychic being” Apollo and the nymph Cyrene “sovereign authority”, herself daughter of the king of the Lapithae, Hypseus “high”. He was fed with nectar and ambrosia, food and drink of the gods conferring immortality (access to non-duality) and eternal youth (adaptation to the movement of becoming or the presence in the moment). Having almost become a god, he was then called Agreus or Nomios, “order according to consciousness” where each thing is in its place. This last name can be compared with Eurynome “vast order”, a godhead who, in the Orphic tradition, ruled the universe with the great serpent Ophion before the Titans seized power.
Aristaeus represents a seeker among the most advanced, one who is about to impose on its nature the sovereignty of the psychic light and accuracy.
He is somehow a clone of Orpheus, being also an offspring of Apollo and a nymph.
He excelled in all human activities: he knew the art of healing (the seeker possesses the knowledge of the energies and understands how to use them), that of prophesy (he has a higher intuition) the arts of hunting and leading of the herds (he knows how to orient his capacities towards the desired goal and masters perfectly the disciplines of the way…) as well as the cultivation of olive trees (…and the processes of purification) and bee-keeping (and knows how to develop the psychic being).
Indeed, bees produce honey which is the symbol of immortality, of non-duality. This is why there are many symbols revolving around honey: purification, resurrection, inspiration coming from the beyond, etc. (It seems that the priests and priestesses of Eleusis, the operative intermediaries of the path towards non-duality, were called “bees”.)
Virgil declared that the Egyptians (people whose land is flooded by the Nile) demonstrated the transforming power of the psychic being and knew the yoga that favoured its development (he confirmed the power of the art of bee-keeping). In particular, he mastered the consecration – with no concern for the result – of creative capacities of the luminous mind (an innumerable swarm arose from the bowels of a bull sacrificed according to certain rules).
And while Aristaeus saw his bees die of hunger, the seeker loses the means to develop his psychic being because he aspires to follow “the right way to act” or rather “an imperative rule”, a valid evolutionary law for everybody (indeed, his misfortune came because he had one day pursued Eurydice). Because he is still a prisoner of a tendency to follow known rules while the evolution of the psychic being eludes them.
In other words, we can progress on the path of a certain perfection (holiness and wisdom) while “starving” one’s psychic being. That’s why Aristaeus went to ask the cause of his bewilderment to his mother Cyrene, daughter of the river Peneus (who holds the “sovereign authority” in the flow of consciousness “which leads to mastery”). At this point, it’s no longer mastery, so she could not advise him and sent him to Proteus.
For Homer, who named him “Proteus the Egyptian”, the latter is an “old man of the sea” just like Nereus. He is also a servant of Poseidon who keeps the herds of seals of the god (of whom he is sometimes considered the son). He’s “immortal” according to Homer and “knows the abysses of all the seas”.
He represents in the subconscious the force that devised the plan of Nereus in the development of the vital, i.e. the one who inspired the emergence of life out of matter. That is why he watched over herds of seals, symbols of a change of environment. Like Nereus, he belongs to the non-dual plane of life (he is immortal). Let’s recall that the appearance of life as well as the mind are the combined results of the Divine acting through the higher planes of the Mind and that of the Divine involved in matter expressing himself in the form of a powerful aspiration of the lower planes. (The process is the same for the installation of the Supermind by awakening the aspiration in the cells. In fact, Mother says that it is a sensitisation or a “permeabilisation” of matter to the supramental forces that are always there.)
The name Proteus (Pro+Τ) means “the setting in motion of the higher consciousness” from the deepest subconscious (the abysses of the seas). It is at these depths, at the root of life in non-duality, that the seeker can contact what in him has full knowledge of his soul’s evolution (Proteus knows the past, present and future) and can show him the mistake on the path.
However, in those areas where life emerged from matter and where the body retains the memory, the powers contacted are constantly in motion and can be terrifying for those who have not reached a sufficient equanimity.
The attribution by Homer of the epithet “Egyptian” to the name of Proteus would suggest that some initiates among these people reached that level of consciousness. What we have already noted with Apollonius of Rhodes, stating that ‘these people kept, set in stone, the instructions for the path’.
After having integrated the story of Orpheus, Aristaeus recovered swarms of bees after offering bulls and heifers in sacrifice (the seeker overcoming the error which is to rely on reference points, finds ways to develop his psychic being if he dedicates his realizations and luminous powers of the mind to the truth).
We can consider that the story of Aristaeus, who himself does not descend into Hades, prepares the descent of Orpheus, the one into the body where there is no more path.
The end of life of Orpheus
Back to the surface of the Earth, Orpheus avoided all trade of love with women although many wanted to unite with him. The Maenads, feeling scorned, stoned and dismembered him. And the shadow of Orpheus joined that of Eurydice.
According to other versions, having founded the Mysteries of Eleusis with Dionysus, he was killed by Thracian women who felt they were scorned, because he kept them away from the Mysteries he founded, or because he persuaded their husbands to follow him in his wandering.
As another source would have it, he had been struck by Zeus who was irritated by the revelations he made about the Mysteries. According to yet another source, he was struck down because of the resentment of Aphrodite towards his mother Calliope.
The end of Orpheus’ life does not appear to have been described before Ovid and Virgil.
The different versions of Orpheus’ death suggest different ideas about the evolution of the quest.
His refusal of any alliance with women, after failing to bring back Eurydice, could express a refusal by the seeker of any new attempt of transformation of matter (he doesn’t set a goal anymore).
His dismemberment by the Maenads (which here seems a resumption of the fate of Dionysus in the Orphic myth) would suggest that the seeker refuses the path of possession of the soul by the Divine (individual mystic ecstasy) and must therefore undergo a deep purification before any new evolutionary breakthrough.
The variant in which Orpheus is killed by the Thracian women would rather suggest an inner conflict. On the one hand, his participation in the foundation of the Eleusinian Mysteries along with Dionysus indicates an adherence to the search for ecstasy as a way of consecration and aspiration which must lead to spiritual transformation. His participation in the establishment of the Mysteries is indeed coherent, for the minor Mysteries by initiating the Argonauts, as well as for the great Mysteries related to the latest labours of Heracles and the descent into the body. But his dismemberment by the Thracian women shows that the seeker is not yet ready to give up the ascetic paths even if a part of him “despises them.”
The death of Orpheus could have different meanings: either the end of a lack of faith and the arrival of a new light, or the stoppage of “the right infusion of consciousness into the being” pending a more complete purification.
The Orphic myth of Zagreus-Dionysus
The myth of Zagreus-Dionysus is one of the most confusing for those who study it. Because of the multiple variants, it is difficult to reconstruct what was the core, as it developed over more than a millennium. Some attribute a Phrygian or Cretan origin. It is said that it was included into Orphism by Onomacrite in the 6th century BC., and that it quickly took a prominent place.
As we have avoided in this study the Orphic cosmogonies, we will likewise leave aside the aspect of the myth that raises man out of the soot of the charred remains of the Titans (struck by Zeus for having killed and dismembered Dionysus Zagreus, the divine child born of Zeus and Persephone) because it seems to be rather a late theology (or belief).
But it seems worth mentioning here the Dionysia, an epic of forty-eight songs that the poet Nonnos (5th century A.D.) left us. It’s a complex poem that contains a very large number of accounts of the primitive mythology, but adds different stories, including the conquest of India by Dionysus. It deserves a detailed study, but we restrict ourselves here to his evocation of three successive Dionysus.
One day, Zeus, changed into a snake, unites with Persephone. From this union was born Zagreus. (According to some, he was destined to be the “very last king among the gods” and receive from his father the domination of the universe.)
Having horns, he went up immediately without help on the throne of Zeus and brandished the thunderbolt. Then Zeus entrusted him to Apollo and the Curetes. Hera, jealous, stirred up the Titans against the young god, who by cunning applied gypsum powder on his face. While he contemplated his reflected and denatured features in a mirror they killed him and butchered him. (Another translation indicates that it is the face of the Titans which was covered with gypsum. Other sources report that they entertained him with toys in order to accomplish their plan: a pine cone, a spinning top, articulated dolls, beautiful golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides and sometimes also a bullroarer, a mirror and ossicles.)
He immediately reappeared in the form of Dionysus, and then took successively the forms of Zeus, Cronos, and various terrible animals to get away from the Titans. Then Hera screamed in anger and the last form of Dionysus, a bull, collapsed. The Titans butchered this bull-Dionysus and then boiled and burned the limbs. (With many other authors, the myth ends here, Dionysus having regained life after his limbs have been put together by Demeter, Rhea or even Apollo.)
Zeus, having understood the cunning of the Titans, became furious and locked them up in Tartarus, also throwing his lightning on their mother, Gaia the Earth. Burning everywhere, the Earth was suffering terribly. Finally, Zeus took pity on her and sent a flood.
Then Zeus fell in love with Semele, and from their love was born the second Dionysus who we discussed previously.
The poet adds here the long history of the conquest of India whose King is Deriades (“the one who fights”).
But Hera was quickly angered by the fame of Dionysus and asked Persephone to send the Erinyes to make him crazy.
Finally, Gaia asked the Giants to kill Dionysus, but they were massacred. While the nymph Aura competed with Artemis in a beauty contest, the latter asked Nemesis to make Dionysus fall in love with Aura. Dionysus raped the nymph in her sleep. She gave birth to twins that she tried to get eaten by a lion, but they were saved. Aura was transformed into a spring. One of the children, named Iacchus, was given to Athena. Dionysus was finally allowed on Olympus.
So, Nonnos evokes three Dionysus – or rather two and his son Iacchus – respectively born from the union of Zeus with Persephone (Zagreus) and Semele (Bacchus), and from unions of Dionysus with Aura (Iacchus). This last Iacchus-Dionysus seems to have already existed in ancient times.
The first Dionysus, Zagreus, represents a phase of yoga in which the seeker would already have had access to the Overmind (with horns, he immediately went up without help on the throne of Zeus and brandished the thunderbolt) and tries to descend into the depths of the body consciousness. This Zagreus is indeed a son of Zeus and Persephone. It is then the work of the adventurers of consciousness to establish the Spirit-Matter unity.
But the powers at the origin of this creation are much too powerful for the seeker at this point of time, regardless of the angle chosen to tackle the work, including the power of realization of the luminous mind (the bull).
(The authors who describe Zagreus as the successor of Zeus – he must be ‘the very last king among the gods’ and ‘receive from his father the domination of the universe’ probably identify him with the second child who will be born from Metis “supreme intelligence”.)
The variant in which Zeus turns into a snake to unite with Persephone, according to some by raping her, confirms that it is a movement that seeks to accelerate evolution, even by “force”.
Zagreus, it’s Agreus + Ζ, “the divine hunter” (or perhaps also Zeus + agros, the work of the highest consciousness). Some make him “a great night hunter of wild beasts” to indicate a work of yoga on the vital of the depths.
Despite the growth of the light of the psychic being (under the watch of Apollo and the Curetes), this first attempt will fail, due to lack of purification.
Of course, Hera who watches over the right process according to the law of nature is opposed to this evolutionary breakthrough, but she is not able to oppose it alone (which was not the case previously with the other lovers or sons of Zeus, such as Io, Heracles, etc.). To “satisfy her hatred”, she must seek the help of greater powers than the gods, the Titans. These are the forces of the world of creation which set and govern the laws, and no longer forces of the world of forms (the gods of Olympus).
In the first version in which it is the face of Zagreus which is coated with plaster (white face, therefore pure), we can deduce that the Titanic forces do not allow him to see “the truth” or make him believe that he reached the goal.
In the other translation in which it is the Titans who have a plastered face, the forces they represent don’t seem to be able to directly oppose Zagreus without being recognized and therefore potentially inhibited. That’s why they progress masked, to avoid alerting the vigilance of the adventurer (maybe they want to make him believe in a right direction if we consider the whiteness of the coat of plaster on their face).
Other authors explain the diversion of consciousness by the “toys” that represent certain paths of yoga under various symbols:
The pineapple for occult knowledge (likely the symbol of the bullroarer).
The articulated dolls for logical knowledge.
The golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides for the highest intuitive knowledge, that of the Overmind.
The mirror for total knowledge of the self.
It is said that in memory of these toys, the initiation rites included ball, spinning top, bullroarer, ossicles, apples, wheel and mirror.
In most versions, his limbs are boiled, then roasted, which was interpreted as a rite of immortality and rejuvenation, i.e. purification of nature’s elements after separating them, in order to prepare non-duality, and on the other hand, adaptation to the movement of becoming (life in the present moment). Then one of the gods “gathers” the pieces to access the next phase.
It is then essentially the body undergoing the purification constraints (the Earth is burning) until the divine moderates “His ardor”, Zeus sending a flood. According to some exegetes this flood was associated by mistake with the flood of Deucalion. “Nonnos notes that The abode of the Sun was shining on the back of the Lion, (that the soul was dominant in the personality), that Venus stayed with the Bull of Olympus (that love was “cohabiting” with the power of realization of the luminous mind at the Overmind level), etc.”
Nonnos introduces at this stage the “second” Dionysus who represents the right process of purification and growth in the power of the spirit (in Zeus) before the seeker can endure without flinching the penetration of the divine powers in him, which leads to some experiences of ecstasies.
This second Dionysus, Bacchus, by its structuring letters (Β + ΚΧ) points to an incarnation of the extension of consciousness at the centre (the psychisation of the being).
The seeker violates the evolutionary process in order to bring a “new air” (Dionysos rapes Aura). Then appears the last Dionysus, Iacchus, symbol of a seeker who can then approach the work in the body, hence his nickname “Dionysus Chtonien”. The name Iacchus (Ι + ΚΧ) suggests an opening that happens in the body consciousness.
Appendix: The God Pan, the Satyrs and the Silens, the Curetes, the Corybantes, the Cabiroi and the Telchines.
These minor deities who intervene in the great myths are described in conflicting and often obscure sources. To follow the evolution of their symbolism over time would therefore require a special study that goes beyond the scope of this book.
The god Pan
We are dealing here with this god because he is often cited as belonging to the retinue of Dionysus. He is often compared to the Silens and Satyrs as his appearance is close to theirs. However, contrary to them, Pan is a god. He also has no affinity with drinking which favours the emergence of the unpurified vital. His horns, ears and legs of a goat must therefore have a different symbolism: the attributes of the goat which accesses the Spirit through the highest of the vital, and not by a raw life force. (Let’s recall that Zeus was nursed by a goat, Amalthea).
He is almost unknown in archaic time, because only the Homeric hymn to Pan composed in the 6th century attests to his existence. His influence became stronger in the classical period, and he seems to have gradually become an important deity of Orphism. Indeed, he is often represented in the retinue of Dionysus.
According to the Homeric hymn, he was born in Arcadia on Mount Cyllene, from Hermes and a Nymph with whom the god fell in love.
According to other sources, he would be the son of Penelope and Odysseus, or even Apollo.
Whatever his parentage, it always refers to very advanced experiences on the path: either to the most advanced seeker (Ulysses), the Overmind (Hermes), or to the radiance of the psychic being (Apollo).
Son of Hermes, he represents a realization of the Overmind, the ability to descend into the deep layers of the vital and/or reach its heights. The father is in no way disturbed by the boorish appearance of his son, because only the highest of the mind can integrate the totality of the shadow.
His mother, a nymph daughter of Dryops, expresses “the consciousness or vision in the vital” at a very archaic level of human development. It corresponds to the energies of nature that enliven “the tree”, and even the most advanced of them, the “oak” (Dryas). Arcadia, province in which the town of Olympia is located, is also the symbol of a very advanced region of the quest.
Pan is thus the expression of a force or a plane that the seeker encounters in the later stages of the quest, a plane at the roots of life where everything is considered and integrated, in keeping with the name of the God “Pan (Παν, everything)”. He expresses the integration of the shadow inherent to diving into the layers of the archaic vital and the revelation of the “true vital” or “cosmic vital (Pan)”. That is why, at his birth, Hermes introduced him to Zeus and the other gods who, without exception, rejoiced. Because even if Pan had a somewhat worrisome appearance that could cause some “unspeakable panic ” (which overwhelms the seeker)”, he was “happy at the bottom of the heart”: only a seeker who reached the Overmind can meet Pan without being destabilized by what this goat-god represents and find joy beyond all fear.
Symbol of the profound overmind-vital junction and the joy that accompanies the discovery of the true vital, he became a great god of Orphism.
Pan has also a piercing eyesight that reveals him to the seers (with the addition of discernment) who look at the world “from above”, because he watches his sheep from the summits.
Like his father, he plays the flute beautifully (Syrinx), late authors attributing the invention to him (although in the classical tradition the inventor was Hermes, after the latter had given the zither to Apollo.) He is therefore the expression of a certain capacity of adherence to “rhythm” and “harmony” (accuracy and purity).
Expression of the Overmind, he was able to intervene with his father Hermes to get his grandfather Zeus out of trouble after the latter defeated the Giants (during a fight occurring at a very advanced stage on the path and which we will have the opportunity to study further). According to Apollodore (I.6.3) Typhoon had wings on his whole body, his size was so excessive that he overshoot all the mountains and often even his head touched the stars. The upper part of his body was just an intertwining of snakes. During the battle, he cut the nerves of the hands and feet of Zeus (or its tendons) and hid them. Hermes and Pan stole them and placed them in the body of the god, which allowed his final victory.
In the most advanced struggles of yoga, the process of consciousness expansion (Zeus) loses its faculty of action (cut tendons) and cannot overcome the fundamental ignorance (Typhoon) if the Overmind (Hermes) does not intervene with its capacity of integration of the shadow that opens up on the true vital or cosmic vital (Pan).
Late literature, under the influence of Christianity, gave a distorted image of this god who was, apparently, very honoured in Orphism. It shows him pursuing nymphs in the countryside, most of the time unsuccessfully.
The Satyrs and the Silens
The oldest sources make the Satyrs and Silens (who are the older Satyrs) descendants of Phoroneus. They describe them as worthless and unfit for work and do not mention any link with Hermes or Dionysus.
The first figurative representations depict them as half-human, half-goat, half-horse accompanying the procession of Dionysus.
Then they evolve into human with only a few special animal features, first of horses, then of goats (tail, ears, horns). Then they were equipped with thyrses and Pan pipes.
Most often mentioned as the sons of Hermes and the participants in the procession of Dionysus, they would be in this case the joyful expressions of the Overmind associated with the path of divine enjoyment.
The Curetes, Corybantes, Dactyls, Telchines, and Cabiroi
We do not study them here in depth because they are hardly involved in the great myths.
Their places of residence could give a first indication. The Dactyles of Mount Ida, “union”, may concern the realization of non-duality in spirit (Zeus was born on this mountain). The Telchines of the Isle of Rhodes, “pink”, are linked to the development of the psychic being while the Curetes and Corybantes “the inspired” of Phrygia “to burn” concern the growth of the inner fire, like the Cabiroi.
The name Curetes means “young warriors”, symbol of the seekers who take the path. Or with κουρος and the structuring letter T, they represent a help for seekers “who begin to aspire”.
By indulging in loud warrior dances, they allowed the growth of Zeus, sheltered from the searches of his father Cronos. In some legends, Zeus came out of their head which would have allowed the emergence of mental super-conscious “human consciousness”. They existed during the Golden Age, under the reign of Cronos, during the vital development of humanity.
It is said that they invented the art of working metal (the making of the first effective tools for ploughing, hunting, etc., i.e. the first tools for working on oneself and the quest), the rearing of herds (concentration, conservation of experiences and realisations, etc.), the art of hunting (vigilance, witness consciousness and discernment) and that of bee-keeping (development of the psychic being) i.e. the preliminaries of the spiritual path.
The Cabiroi are related to the mysteries of Samothrace, an initiation place probably reserved for small Mysteries. In a lost drama of Aeschylus, they would have welcomed the Argonauts. They were called “the great and powerful gods.” They were supposed to protect the initiates from all dangers, especially those coming from the sea, the dangers of the vital plane.