The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXVI

The Orphic Cosmogony…


His Bifurcation of the Cosmos and the Pre-cosmogonic Divorce (again)…

Its Analogues in the Babylonian Creation Myth…

Orphism and Persian Religion…

Having considered the myth of Orpheus himself, we must turn, finally, to the mythological cosmogony attributed to his authorship by his followers.

The Orphic cosmogony (the curious, if not bizarre account of the creation of the gods and the world) deserves our attention not only in relation to its importance to the Orphic movement of the sixth century, but because its occult, Byzantine, at times oriental, extravagance is a feature which recurs in the speculations of the Neoplatonists, for whom Orpheus was the fons et origo of all divine wisdom.

As usual, the Orphic cosmogony comes down to us in fragments quoted by later authors, which, to further complicate the matter, are quotations from a number of different versions of the creation story. For present purposes, I will use the most complete, oft-quoted, and probably ancient of these (called by tradition the “Orphic Rhapsodies”), which in all likelihood descends from the nascency of the cult in the sixth century B.C.


Here follows (believe it or not) an abridged and harmonized version of the myth:

The first principle was Chronos, or Time, which existed from all eternity. Out of Time came the fiery Aether, and the “huge gulf” known as Chaos. Next, out of Aether and Chaos, Chronos fashioned a silver egg. The egg split in two, and Phanes (the “shining one”, the “revealer”, the “bringer of light”) issued forth, the very first god. Thus, Phanes is also called Protogonos, the First Born; but he has other names as well: Dionysus, Eros, and Metis (Wisdom).

As the summit and summation of this process, Phanes bears within himself infinite time, whose child he is, and Eros, the creative potency of the cosmos; he is the repository of all the seeds of being, the archetypal totality or pleroma, embodying in potentia all future species and generations: of things, of gods, and of men. By necessity, Phanes is thus also bisexual, and accordingly identified with the mythic Hermaphrodite.

Phanes is invariably described as a figure of shining light and marvelous beauty, bearing upon his shoulders golden wings and the heads of various animals, including those of bulls and a monstrous serpent, which is itself an ever-changing hybrid of many beasts. This fantastical iconography of beast forms has suggested to scholars oriental, particularly Babylonian and Persian influence, and as we’ll see, the inference is an eminently plausible one.


The sixth Orphic Hymn, dating from the Christian era but preserving much older elements, reveals something of the mystical piety that Phanes elicited from the Orphic community. Here it is translated in unfortunate rhyming couplets:

O mighty first-begotten, hear my prayer,
Twofold, egg-born, and wandering through the air;
Bull-roarer, glorying in thy golden wings,
From which the race of gods and mortals springs.
Eros-Bacchos, celebrated power,
Ineffable, occult, all-shining flower.
’Tis thine from darksome mists to purge the sight,
All-spreading splendour, pure and holy light;
Hence, Phanes, called the glory of the sky,
On waving pinions through the world you fly.

Phanes, then, like Apollo, is a solar deity. But he is much more: he is the aethereal light and fire-stuff, the divine spirit or pneuma that pervades the cosmos with soul, that infuses, animates, disposes in harmony and order, and unifies the dark material chaos of the multiform universe. He is, at the same time, the spark of the divine fire that smoulders in the depths of every human soul, ever threatened as it is with suffocation by its material container.

It is thus that we pray to him to purge the dark mists and shadows that envelop and obscure the human self, whose inner vision is blinded by the false glare of the senses and the passions, just as the inner ear is deafened and prevented from hearing the celestial harmonies by the sensual din that bombards it from the outside world. Illuminated by the immanent Phanes, the inner sight may recognize the divine light occulted within.


We are told next that Phanes made an eternal home for the gods and was their first king. From the two halves of his world egg, he created the heavens and the earth.

The motive of the bifurcation of the cosmos is no less universal than the world-egg itself, of course. In almost all cosmogonies, Father Sky and Mother Earth, the archetypal male and female principles, are at first chaotically conjoined, locked in a sterile embrace. Only after their pre-cosmogonic divorce, can their recombination be fruitful.

We first recognized this motive (in the first installments of this series) in cosmogonies throughout Egypt and Mesopotamia. It recurs as a feature of the cosmological speculations of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Anaximander (as we saw) and Empedocles (as we’ll see), and it inevitably manifests itself again amongst the Orphics.

Here is how Orpheus himself is said to have begun his song of creation in Apollonius of Rhodes’ third-century B.C. Argonautica:

He sang of that past age when earth and sky were knit together in a single mould; how they were sundered after deadly strife.

That Phanes creates sky and earth out of the two halves of his egg reminds us in turn of the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, in which the solar-creator god Marduk fillets the chaos dragon of the cosmogonic sea,Tiamat, establishing her upper half as the vault of heaven, and her lower as the earth and ocean.

As we have already seen, the Babylonian creation myth exercised a profound influence on the priestly author of the first chapters of Genesis, where the “formless deep” (in Hebrew t’hom) over which the Spirit of God broods in Gen. 1:2 is recognized by scholars as a corruption of Tiamat, and the peculiar motive in which God divides the waters above the firmament from those below it (calling the waters above Heaven and those below it Earth) is clearly an inflection of the bisection of Tiamat by Marduk. The same Babylonian myth, of course, stands behind the dragon-killing theme that runs throughout the biblical salvation history, Tiamat being the obvious progenitrix of the biblical sea-monster Leviathan.


The Babylonian afflatus of the Orphic cosmogony probably came to Greece via the Persians, with whom the Greeks were already at war in the sixth century. Indeed, there are deep and abiding similarities between Orphism and the Zoroastrian religion of the Persians: the importance of the Time principal, for instance, the great war between the spiritual and material orders, the proper attitude of contempt for the world and the flesh, the imagery of light and darkness, as expressed by the deities at the two extremes of the Persian trinity, Ahura Mazda and Ahreiman, whose opposing valencies are mediated by Mithras.

The modern world, we are told, is becoming smaller; but the more we know about antiquity, the smaller it too seems to become.