Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part VII

The Analogy between Orpheus and David…

Christianity as a Syncretistic Religion…

     Before we quite leave the orbit of his mythology, I need to mention one other narrative tradition about a legendary musician to whom Orpheus was habitually compared.

In his important early-sixth-century treatise The Institutes, Cassiodorus draws the analogy between the power of Orpheus’ lyre to soothe the breasts of wild beasts and that of David’s harp to “deliver Saul from the unclean spirit by means of his redeeming melody”.   In the Middle Ages, the identification of Orpheus with David, and with Christ (the New David), was one of a number of analogies between pagan mythology and biblical history that evolved into literary commonplaces:  image clusters or complexes that tended to promote a vision of the archetypal provenance and universal amplitude of the Christian story and its God, and at the same time to blur the edges of the heavily bibliocentric theology of early Christian polemic, in which the Truth of the Bible was seen in triumphant and disqualifying contrast to the falsity of pagan myth.


The origin of the David-Orpheus analogy is in fact pre-Christian, having been first brewed up in late Hellenistic times when pagan philosophy and mystery religion, esoteric Jewish theosophy, and nascent Christianity were in fertile contact with one another, giving birth in turn to any number of strange offspring, including Hermeticism, Gnosticism, and the Kabbala.

In an Essenian manuscript discovered at Qumran, for example, a poem is placed in the mouth of David that is fecund with Orphic initiatory formulas and detailed allusions to the myth of the Greek musician, in which the Israelite King was shown to be entirely fluent.  Knowing as we do (after the disinterment of Qumran’s treasures) how completely suffused with Orphic and Pythagorean ideas was the Judaism of the Essenes, we may appreciate that the author of this poem was ventilating a sort of theological joke.

According to the conventional Deuteronomic theology of kingship of which David was the embodied ideal, the supreme vocation of the Israelite monarch was to immunize the Hebrew faith against contamination from neighbouring pagan cults. But far from purifying the high places, David himself is here imagined to be a sort of Orphic priest or sage.  This early “Orphic David” seems to testify to that sinful Jewish habit of syncretism that was abominated by the Prophets and Kings of Israel throughout Old Testament history.   But since Christianity is nothing if not a syncretistic phenomenon, it is not surprising that the mind of the Christian Middle Ages was struck by and avid to rehearse the many parallels and points of contact between the legends of Orpheus and David.

Just as David had exorcised the malignant demon from Saul’s spirit, according to the Byzantine theologian John Tzetzes, Orpheus’ music drew the snake-venom from the body, and the moral poison from the soul, of Eurydice.  “Just as Orpheus played his lyre in hell”, wrote Bernard of Utrecht (an eleventh-century commentator on the school text, the Eclogue of Theodulus), “so David played before Saul; and just as Orpheus mollified the gods of the underworld with his lyre, so David pacified Saul’s evil spirit.”

In both the Eclogue of Theodulus and the voluminous fourteenth-century allegorical commentary on the Metamorphoses known as the Ovide moralise, the Davidic harp that delivers Saul from his demonic rage is said to have been the very lyre of Orpheus that had once uprooted trees, halted rivers in their course, set rocks to dancing, and civilized the wildness of ferocious beasts.


Finally, both Orpheus, in his hymns, and David in his Psalms, were celebrated as divinely inspired singers of the creation of the world, and so in his commentary on the six days of creation in Genesis, the seventh-century exegete George of Pisidia, drew the comparison, “For however much Orpheus smote his divinely tuned lyre, so too David, seeing the glory of the heavens as they stretched from the height to the depths of creation, sang out about them”.

And in the fifteenth century, testifying to the continuity of this tradition, the Middle English poet John Lydgate equates “The harpis most melodious/Of David and of Orpheous”, whose

melodye was in all
So hevenly and celestiall
That there nys hert, I dar expresse,
Oppressed so with hevynesse,
Nor in sorwe so y-bounde,
That he sholde ther ha founde
Comfort hys sorowe to apese…


The “melodye” of David and Orpheus is not merely figuratively but literally “heavenly and celestial”, of course; it is, that is, the Pythagorean harmony of the spheres, with which Orpheus’ lyre, and now David’s harp, reverberate.  Indeed, that Lydgate’s poem is entitled Resoun and Sensualite tells us, once again, that the doctrine of the harmony of spheres, along with its entire Orpheo-Pythagoreo-Platonic ethos, has long since been read into Christian biblical narrative and theology.