The available material concerning Orpheus bulks perhaps as large as that dealing with Dionysus himself; and again we are confronted with a difficult and composite personality. He and his even more elusive "son" Musaeus are the only names to whom the Greeks attributed sacred, authoritarian literature; to them were accredited the lost poems setting forth the history and ritual not only of Dionysus but of Demeter -Persephone as well. Successive layers of Orphic literature were ascribed to the legendary prophet, each expressing the theology of its own age.

Classical literature knows Orpheus as a Thracian; yet Pausanias relates that in a huge mural by Polygnotus "Orpheus' dress is Greek, no part of his attire being Thracian" (Description of Greece, X, xxx). This indicates that although the cult of Dionysus was Thracian, its Orphean reform was certainly Greek

We shall examine and attempt to reconstruct the Orpheus development of the Dionysiac myth, subsequent to it's original Thracian-Hellenic form, through two stages of the Eleusinia. Its final phase as an integral portion of Pythagoreanism which I will address later.


Orpheus was a legendary poet and musician, son of the Muse Calliope by Apollo or by Oeagrus, a king of Thrace. He was given the lyre by Apollo and became such an excellent musician that he had no rival among mortals. He is said to have played the lyre so beautifully that he charmed everything animate and inanimate. His music enchanted the trees and rocks and tamed wild beasts, and even the rivers turned in their course to follow him. He married the lovely nymph Eurydice. Soon after the wedding the bride was stung by a viper and died. Orpheus determined to go to the underworld and try to bring her back (again the repeat of the descent to Hades as we have seen so many times before), something no mortal had ever done. Hades, the ruler of the underworld, was so moved by his playing that he gave Eurydice back to Orpheus on the one condition that he not look back until they reached the upperworld, but Orpheus could not control his eagerness and as he gained the light of day he looked back a moment too soon, and Eurydice vanished. Grief-stricken, Orpheus forsook human company and wandered in the wilds, playing for the rocks and trees and rivers. Finally a fierce band of Thracian women, who were followers of the god Dionysus, came upon the gentle musician and killed him (again torn to pieces as Osiris had been as well as others). When they threw his severed head in the river Hebrus, it continued to call for Eurydice, and was finally carried to the shore of Lesbos, where the Muses buried it. After Orpheus's death his lyre became the constellation Lyra.

The tragic tale of Orpheus was celebrated in song and story by many classical authors. The religious meaning of the legend, however, seems to have escaped them: and it is with this that we are concerned.

We have already seen that, according to Diodorus, Dionysus was said to have given Charops the rule over the Thracians and instructed him in secret rites; that Oeagrus, son of Charops, inherited both the kingdom and the mysteries; and that, finally, Orpheus, son of Oeagrus, learned these from his father, but made so many changes in them that they were thereafter called Orphic. Diodorus continues: "He journeyed to Egypt, where he further increased his knowledge and so became the greatest among the Greeks both for his knowledge of the gods and of their rites" (History, IV, 35). Pausanias declared that "Orpheus . . . attained to great influence as being thought to have invented the mysteries of the gods, and purification from unholy deeds, and cures for diseases and means of turning away the wrath of the gods. And they say the Thracian women laid plots against his life, because he persuaded their husbands to accompany him on his wanderings;" and "when they had primed themselves with wine, they carried out the atrocious deed.... But some say that Orpheus died from being struck by lightning by the god because he taught men in the mysteries things they had not before heard of" (Description of Greece, IX, xxx).


With Orpheus we leave the realm of pure myth and deal at last with a kernel of historical fact. We are told in the Argonautica (by Apollonius Rhodius) that Orpheus accompanied Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece; and, as we have noted, Polygnotus placed him at the siege of Troy. Accordingly, Orpheus flourished about 1150 B.C.E. However, the oldest poems attributed to him and to Musaeus were probably composed in the tenth or the ninth century, and may have been written in a Mycenaean script which has not survived.

Diodorus, Pausanias, and other writers of the first century could not distinguish between the original elements of the Orphean myth and theology and those which were engrafted upon them in subsequent ages. They speak, therefore, as if the sixth-century Hymns of Orpheus, which were used in the Eleusinia and which are extant, belonged to the original Thracian prophet.

We conclude that Orpheus went to Thrace and there attempted to reform the cult of Dionysus. It is clear that the infuriated Bacchantes wreaked vengeance upon the innovator Orpheus, either because he took their husbands from them or because he attempted to introduce doctrines considered subversive or impious. It is further obvious that Orpheus wished to transform the mystery from an orgiastic ritual practicing omophagia (devouring of flesh), especially of infants, into a more civilized religion, which would reject the Maenadic worship and seek instead its devotees among celibate men. We can easily see why the Thracian priests and their Maenads (priestesses) would rend and tear-apart and this innovator: not only advocating celibacy following the death of this beloved, but he wished to deprive the Thracian priests of their power and the Maenad priestesses of their beloved instrument of rebellion.



The Orpheans, embracing celibacy, rejected the rebellious women who wished to possess husbands while continuing as Bacchantes. To account for this bizarre repudiation of masculine duty, the touching myth of Eurydice was devised, which also incorporated elements of the age-old story of Ishtar and Tammuz in reverse, and which reflects the development of monogamy and private property (let us not forget the Essenes later would adopt both of these philosophies). According to the tale, Orpheus loved his beautiful wife surpassingly; when she died, therefore, he was distraught and disconsolate, and, to regain her, descended into Hades where he persuaded Persephone to permit her to follow him into the upper world on condition that he would not look back. When their escape was almost accomplished, however, he cast a fleeting glance; and Eurydice, mingling with the bloodless shades, faded forever from his sight. Having loved Eurydice so passionately, Orpheus now forswore womankind forever, which brought upon him the wrath of the Bacchantes. Bacchus, in Greek and Roman mythology, was the god of wine, identified with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and Liber, the Roman god of wine. The son of Zeus (Jupiter), Bacchus is usually characterized in two ways. The first is that of the god of vegetation, specifically of the fruit of the trees, who is often represented on Attic vases with a drinking horn and vine branches. As Bacchus came to be the popular national Greek god of wine and cheer, wine miracles were reputedly performed at certain of his festivals and weddings (the miracle of Jesus turning the water into wine is a typical Bacchus miracle). The second characterization of the god, that of a deity whose mysteries inspired ecstatic, orgiastic devotion, is exemplified by the Maenads, or Bacchantes. This group of female devotees left their homes to roam the wilderness in ecstatic devotion to the god. You can easily understand how Orpheus' introduction of celibacy was the motive of his later dismemberment by the licentious Maenad priestesses. The name Bacchus came into use in ancient Greece during the 5th century BC. It refers to the loud cries with which he was worshiped at the Bacchanalia, frenetic celebrations in his honor. These frenetic celebrations, which supposedly originated in spring nature festivals, became occasions for licentiousness and intoxication, at which the celebrants danced, drank, and generally debauched themselves. Orpheus was determined to stop this following the loss of the love of his life. The Bacchanalia became more and more extreme and were prohibited by the Roman Senate in 186 BC. In the first century AD, however, the Dionysiac mysteries were still popular, as evidenced by representations of them found on Greek sarcophagi.

Ovid describes in detail the lynching of Orpheus (Stromata, VI, ii).

Its great age of this myth is obvious, since it bears all the earmarks of the ancient Dionysia, and since its eschatology is that of Homer; it includes none of those doctrinal or mythological elements introduced after 1100 B.C.E.

In the Hippolytus of Euripides we find the cult of Aphrodite in conflict with that of Orpheus. The Greek goddess of love, reconstructed from the Semitic Ishtar, is furious because the son of Theseus has forsworn the connubial rite; because he is, in short, a confirmed celibate. To avenge herself for this injury, she inspires his stepmother, Phaedra, with an irresistible passion for the young man; when he rebuffs her with scorn and contumely, she hangs herself, but leaves a note addressed to her husband in which she accuses his son of improper advances to her. This drives Theseus to condemn Hippolytus to exile and to call down upon him the wrath of Poseidon, who causes the young man's death in a chariot-accident. Although the Orphean religion is not endorsed by Euripides, the tone of the tragedy makes it plain that the doings of Aphrodite are considered highly reprehensible by the audience. As the Mycenaean period was drawing toward its close, private property and monogamy had won the victory in Greece over communal property and other forms of sex-relationship.


Orpheus was a prophet with vast pretensions who arrived too late. Although he was credited with every experience and suffering usually prerequisite for Deification, he never achieved divinity. He was assigned a goddess-mother, Calliope: but this maternity was rejected (Pausanias, Description, IX, xxx), Orpheus was torn into bloody remnants by the ferocious Maenads (similar to the dismemberment of Osiris and the Attis ritual): but this never made him a successor to Osiris, Dionysus, or Attis; he went into the underworld seeking his wife: but this did not make him a savior-god capable of conferring a similar immortality and apotheosis upon his devotees. Dionysus was too well entrenched as his predecessor. Orpheus arrived among the Hellenes after they had attained sophistication: he remained therefore only the great poet, musician, theologian, and prophet, while Dionysus continued to grow as the universal savior-god.



We noted that the primitive cult of Dionysus had invaded Greece both from Egypt and from Thrace before the Orphean reformation, which did not invent, but simply adopted, the version according to which the god was born in Thebes of Semele.


There were, therefore, two Dionysiac invasions of Greece from Thrace: first, that which made Semele his mother in order to Hellenize the god but left him otherwise substantially unchanged; and, second, the Orphean, which established a new ritual, penetrated the Eleusinia and the mysteries, became the soteriological center of that mystery by means of a new myth, and was finally absorbed by the Pythagoreans. We will encounter the again when we get to the Essenes.



The first Orphean innovation was the transformation of the Dionysus sacrament. It repudiated the eating of the raw flesh of bovines, human enemies, or infants, and replaced it with a symbolic Eucharist. Since wine was the gift and the blood of Dionysus even as the grain was his body, the red juice of the grape and the bread which is baked from flour became the bloodless sacrifice of the new dispensation, which, by means of mystical ceremonies, conferred immortality upon the initiates.


In another basic innovation, Orphism based itself upon a dogmatic theology and upon a formal and elaborate set of doctrines, all of which were set forth in the oldest stratum of Orphic poetry and which was well known to Clement of Alexander and other early church fathers; there were, however, no revolutionary ethics; and certainly no concepts of dualism, a last judgment, hell fire, metempsychosis (the passing of the soul of a man after death into some other animal body), or universal immortality. These poems, which were probably a century or so older than the Homeric, were composed by the priests of Eleusis, and were probably transmitted orally from one generation to the next, until they could be committed to classic writing late in the seventh century B.C.E. Like the scriptures of the Brahmanas, the Zoroastrians, and the Jews, they purported to be divine revelations and this contributed to their dogmatism.

This ancient Orphism was not basically ascetic: its was of a nature quite different from that which we find among the Buddhists or the Pythagoreans. Clement of Alexander quotes Orpheus as saying "nothing else is more shameless and wretched than woman" (Stromata, VI, ii), which we may accept simply as a reprimand for Bacchante excesses.


Orpheus wrote poems concerning the generation and descent of the gods. The subject matter of the original Orphic poems was similar to that of Hesiod and Homer, except that it made certain significant additions and alterations, concerned primarily with the creation. We find that Dionysus becomes here a god similar to the Egyptian Tem or Ra, who, in a series of incarnations, was the creator, the father, and the savior of mankind. At the beginning, there was only Night; and from this, as in the Egyptian cosmogony, sprang the primeval egg, which contained ErosPhanes, which was simply another name for Dionysus. When the egg burst, it separated into two elements, which became Heaven (Uranos) and Earth (Ge). These copulated, as in the Hesiodic system, and gave birth to Cronos or Time, and to the other Titans; Cronos became the father of Rhea, Demeter, Mnemosyne, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus, who, by eating his own father, encompassed all creation. Zeus now copulated with Persephone, who gave birth to Zagreus, the incarnation of Phanes, or Dionysus reborn, who was the father-creator in the sixth generation; and to him he gave the scepter and universal dominion. Father Phanes thus became Father Dionysus, or, as he was better known, Father Liber or Bacchus.

Exactly what existence the Orphic-Dionysus cult had independently of the Eleusinia we can only guess. Nor can we describe in detail the soteriological ritual of Dionysus within the Demeter-cult before 600 B.C.E. That such rites were well developed is certain; their exact forms we cannot know. There must have been at least a sacrament of bread and wine, which the communicants ate to be transformed into the essence of the god.

The foregoing was apparently the Orphean-Dionysiac theology prevailing within the Eleusinia until the sixth century. But around 500, another far-reaching alteration consisting in the addition of the Zagreus-Titan myth took place. According to this, the reincarnated god, while still a boy known as Zagreus, was killed, cooked, and eaten by the Titans (we see omophagia again), who, in turn, were thereupon, by the thunderbolts of Zeus, burned to ashes, from which the human race was generated. The whole tale is never told in its entirety by any single extant author; but it is possible to reconstruct it from passages in Firmicus Maternus, Clement of Alexandria, the voluminous writings of the Neo-Platonists, and a number of other sources.

We learn from Herodotus of a certain Onomacritus, "an oraclemonger, and the same who set forth the prophecies of Musaeus in their order," and who was "banished from Athens by Hipparchus," because he was caught in the act of corrupting the older writings attributed to Musaeus. Pausanias declares that "Onomacritus borrowed the name of the Titans from Homer when he wrote his poem about the orgies of Dionysus and represented the Titans as contributing to the sufferings of Dionysus'' (Description of Greece, VIII, xxxvii).

Together with the Zagreus-Titan element, introduced by Onomacritus late in the sixth or early in the fifth century, additional elements of Egyptian myth and ritual were incorporated with the Greek Dionysus. Plutarch declares that "the tales regarding the Titans and the rites celebrated by night agree with the accounts of the dismemberment of Osiris and his revivification and regenesis . . . and the Holy Ones offer a secret sacrifice in the shrine of Apollo whenever the devotees of Dionysus awaken the god of the Mystic Basket'' (Isis and Osiris, 35). Thus the Titans finally took the place of Set and his coconspirators; and the sacrament of Dionysus was eaten from a mystic basket, exactly as in the Osirian ritual.

Diodorus thus summarizes this sixth-century innovation, according to which "the Sons of Gaia tore to pieces the god (really the son of god), who was the son of Zeus and Demeter and boiled him, but his members were brought together again (remember Osiris?) by Demeter and he experienced a new birth as if for the first time.... And with these stories, the teachings agree which are set forth in the Orphic poems and are introduced into their rites, but it is not lawful to recount them in detail to the uninitiated" (History, III, 62).

Diodorus also recounts the version of those Eleusinians who, having first adopted the Phanes-theology, expanded this by means of the Zagreus-Titan myth and finally incorporated with it the older tale of Dionysus' virgin birth from Semele, his descent into Hades to recover her, and his subsequent Deification with her in heaven. In this fully-developed form, Dionysus appears as the creator of the world; reborn from Persephone as Zagreus, he suffered dismemberment and death; resurrected from his heart, he lived as a god in the celestial realms; his body, eaten by the Titans, from whose ashes mankind was created, became the divine spark in humanity; descending from the celestial mansions, he was reborn from the pure virgin Semele, whom he later rescued from the nether realm, and now sits forever at the right hand of God. And so being twice-born, Dionysus was called Dimetor (The Mystical Hums of Orpheus, "To the Titans").

And so we know that about 500 B.C.E., there lived in Athens a clever priest by the name of Onomacritus, a notorious forger of oracles, who either composed or rewrote certain Orphic poems, and in this manner made the Zagreus-Titan myth an integral portion of the Dionysiac theology. It probably was he, who described the Titans in the Orphic hymn addressed to them as the "Fountains and principles from which began, The afflicted, miserable race of man."

The English Platonist, Thomas Taylor, has composed an inimitable summary of the Zagreus-Titan myth which runs briefly as follows: Phanes-Eros-Dionysus was reborn from Zeus and Persephone as Zagreus, upon whom, even as a boy, his father conferred the might and the glory of his kingdom. At this the wicked and materialistic Titans became jealous, and they killed, cooked, and ate the boy in a grisly but conventional, ancient Egyptian-type sacrament. Athena, however (or Demeter or Persephone), retrieved the heart, the seat of life, as in the Osirian system, and returned it to Zeus, who therefrom effected the regenesis of the God into his second birth. Zeus, blasting the Titans with his thunderbolts, reduced them to ashes, from which the human race was generated. At a much later date, this savior-Christ left the glory of his heavenly home, and was to be reborn of the virgin Semele (the incarnation),whom he raised from Hades as a token of his power. Humanity, therefore, generated from Titanic fragments, is prone to evil. However, since elements of Dionysus were also present in the Titanic ashes, there is a divine spark in all mankind, which makes it possible for us to escape our lower and achieve our higher destiny. In order to do this, we must mortify the body to set free the soul. There is, therefore, in this reformed Eleusinian Orphism a definite dualism, an enmity between the spiritual and the material, which could easily produce a completely celibate movement.



When Onomacritus invented the Zagreus-Dionysus-Titan myth and combined this with the virgin birth from Semele, Orphism became a systematic soteriology designed to effect the salvation of a race otherwise irretrievably lost in sin and requiring regeneration because their souls are debased and imprisoned in sinful bodies. Throughout all those centuries, however, Dionysus remained a soter only. His worship embraced no distinctive economic, ethical, or eschatological doctrine; all such innovations were to be introduced by later Pythagoreans.


Although the original Eleusinian ritual was both stately and exhilarating, it nevertheless was wanting in the most dynamic single element constituting the ancient mystery: the soter/savior. For at its center was Demeter-Persephone, not Osiris-Dionysus, the god whose body and blood we must eat and drink in the form of an Eucharist in order to assume the incorruption of divinity.


That Dionysus was an inseparable element in the Demeter-Persephone cult long before the first century B.C.E. is confirmed by overwhelming evidence. Strabo sums up this development succinctly: "They call also Bacchus, Dionysus; and he is the chief Daemon of the mysteries of Ceres.'' That Demeter (Latin, Ceres), Persephone (Proserpina), and Dionysus (Bacchus) were not only universal but also inseparably intertwined, we discover over and over. Pausanias declares, in a statement that could apply to almost any Greek city, that in the temple of Eleusinian Demeter at Thelpusa were large statues of Demeter, Proserpina, and Dionysus. And so it was everywhere. The same author states: "and inside the grove are statues of Demeter, Prosymne, and Dionysus . . . but in another temple there is a wooden one of Dionysus the Savior.'' This was a common situation: by the first century, Dionysus had become central in the Demeter-Persephone worship, but he had also a separate cult of his own in every community. And he was called the Savior.


And so we see that although Osiris could not penetrate Greece under his own name, he did so repeatedly in the guise of Dionysus. History proves over and over that nothing is easier for mankind than to copy and imitate; but, by the same token, nothing is more difficult than to invent or originate. Certain concepts, like that of a god, or the virgin birth, or the belief that theft and murder are wrong, were almost universal and are therefore indigenous to many people. But civilization itself, as well as various primitive specialized concepts, like that of a savior-god and his Eucharist, of hell and heaven, of metempsychosis and Nirvana, of the Messiah and his Parousia—these originated only once and were either adopted by others or never found among them at all.

There has never been more than one Osiris

There has never more than one basic soteriological concept

However, the same concepts have been much and often translated and transfigured. The Dionysus who, in the end, became the chief demon in the Ceres-Proserpina ritual was substantially the same god to whom Unas and Pepi, Ani and Nebseni, and the wild mountaineers of Thrace and Phrygia had offered sacrifice in bygone ages and by whom they hoped for victory over death and the grave. In the end, the nurturing Demeter and her dread daughter Persephone proved insufficient: in order to survive, their cult was forced to incorporate their greatest competitor. By the first century, then, the Demeter-and the independent Dionysus-cult were both universal; and we suppose that the difference consisted chiefly in emphasis and appeal: the Eleusinian remained to the end more dignified, more suitable to the refined and educated; but in both the same deity was predominant. Possessing an aspect to suit every communicant, Dionysus became the universal savior-god of the ancient world. And there has never been another like unto him: the first to whom his attributes were accredited, we call Osiris; with the death of paganism, his central characteristics were assumed by the Christ of faith...the Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.

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