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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. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in its latest version, describes a descent into the physical unconscious to find “the right way to act”.

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Orpheus among the Thracians

Orpheus among the Thracians – Metropolitan Museum of Arts

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 c