The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXIV

The Meaning of Orpheus’ Myth…

Orpheus as Priest of Apollo…

As Sun God…

Music, the Harmony of the Spheres, and Orphic Withdrawal…

Orpheus as Resistor to Dionysian Religion…

As Dionysian Priest…

The authority claimed by the Orphic writings was presumed to flow, as I have said, from Orpheus himself, as their semi-divine author or inspirer. That Orpheus, if such a man ever lived, cannot have been either, is of course obvious, since the doctrines of Orphism belong manifestly to the climate of thought of the sixth century B.C., and most particularly to that of sixth-century Southern Italy, the home of Pythagoreanism and of the writers of the funereal inscriptions I’ve already mentioned.

Why, then, we must ask, was Orpheus chosen as the patron or prophet of this movement? To answer this question we must return to his myth, bearing in mind that all myths are aggregates of autonomous elements of different provenance and meaning, often in mutual contradiction, each of which must therefore be interpreted separately.

Looking at his myth in this way, the most obvious reason for the election of Orpheus, according to most scholars, is his connection with his patron Apollo, whom in many ways he resembled. There is, first of all, Orpheus’ musical skill, which reminds us immediately of the lyre-god. Both, moreover, were said to have made wild beasts gather around them in docile fashion. And if his myth tells us besides that Orpheus was Apollo’s priest, we may take this as significant: for the priest, as we’ve seen in the case of Dionysus, is also the earthly manifestation and human representative of the god.

The mythic Orpheus, then, is preeminently a sun-god, or at least the earthly incarnation of the solar deity. This explains, amongst other things, his descent into the underworld and his resurrection, a death and rebirth that the sun reprises every evening when it sets in the western sky and descends into the kingdom of the dead beneath the earth, arising every morning from the same realm of night and death, above the eastern horizon. It explains, by the same token, Orpheus’ relationship with Eurydice, who (like Persephone in her aspect as crone) is both goddess of the moon and the night and thus also a queen of the dead.


If Orpheus’ music had the power to pacify the breasts of wild beasts, and induce even inanimate stones to follow him, it must have been because these beings, like all things, were filled with soul. This was indeed the view of the Orphics, who taught a form of pantheism or hylozoism, according to which the entire material world was enlivened and alive with the one Soul-Substance, God in fact, which underwent an endless series of metamorphoses and yet remained the same.

Music, moreover, was the most potent way of reawakening the indwelling soul to an awareness of its celestial origins, nature, and unbroken connection with the Divine, since, in its original home amongst the stars, the pre-embodied soul heard the otherworldly harmony of the spheres (which Pythagoras so famously describes) as its birthsong. Since the sensual din of the world and the physical senses inevitably drowns out this transcendental harmony, the duty of the Orphic is to stop up his outer ears, to mortify and anesthetize his physical senses, and nurture instead the inner senses with which alone the heavenly music can be heard. The Orphic way of the salvation of the soul is thus, as Socrates describes the life of the philosopher in the Phaedo, a withdrawing of the soul from the world and the body into the stillness of the Divine that resides in its own depths.


The music of Orpheus, like that of Apollo, is thus the calm, rational, orderly, and soothing note of the lyre. It has apparently nothing to do with the riotous din of Dionysian flutes or tympana.

As such Orpheus’ devotion to Apollo and ostensible aversion to Dionysus is a prominent motive in his myth, and finds early illustration in the plot of Aeschylus’ lost play the Bassarids, which records the dismembering of Orpheus by the Maenads at the instigation of their god.

This story seems at first to fall into the pattern of a whole class of legends about the resistance to the introduction of the cult of Dionysus on the part of a Hellene and the subsequent vengeance exacted by the god (of which Euripides’ Bacchae is the most famous example). Except that Orpheus is a Hellene living in Thrace, supposedly offering opposition to Dionysus, accordingly, in his native land.

Orpheus’ calm and civilized demeanour, his resemblance to and championship of the Hellenic Apollo, and his opposition to the Thracian religion seem to make it impossible that he should have been imagined as an eastern barbaros; and yet this Hellene lives in the wild homeland of the Dionysian revels.


In fact, more than just his Thracian habitat associates Orpheus with Dionysus. As early as the end of the archaic period, he was regarded in some circles as the actual founder of the Dionsyian mysteries.

Dionsysus is mysteriously devoted to the Muses at the foot of Mt. Olympus, and so too Orpheus seems to be the leader of a retinue of Muse-mothers. As dying and reviving gods, both Orpheus and Dionysus journeyed to Hades and returned to life in the upper world, Dionysus to rescue his mother Semele and Orpheus his wife Eurydice. Like the Eleusinian triad Kore-Demeter-Persephone, the holy mother Semele too was one manifestation of the triple goddess, her crone persona being identified with Hecate, another famous queen of the dead. That Eurydice was originally a goddess of the underworld is suggested by the etymology of her name, “the all-judging one”. And finally, just as Dionsysus-Zagreus was torn to pieces by the Titans, so is Orpheus dismembered by the Maenads of Thrace.

One senses that the mythological tradition of Orpheus as a kind of missionary of Apollo to the Dionsysian wilds of Thrace suggests something important about the nature of the Orphic movement. The manner of Orpheus’ death, recapitulating as it does the sparagmos that was the culminating rite of the Dionysian cult, suggests paradoxically that before he became a disciple of Apollo, he was in fact a priest of Dionysus.

Orpheus’ dismemberment at the hands of the Maenads certainly recalls the central sacrament of the Dionysian mysteries, in which the god is torn apart and eaten in his animal or human manifestation in a sacramental ritual in which the god’s divine mana is assimilated by his votaries; and as I said, in ancient religion, the human incarnation of the god was his priest. The priest, as the god incarnate, had the privilege of dying with his god, and so also rising again in perfect identification with him. The rite was almost certainly mimetic, but the symbolism was clear nonetheless.

Thus the lost tragedy of Aeschylus seems to have two meanings: Orpheus suffers the fate of his god Dionysus, and yet he is assimilated to Apollo.