The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXVII

The Rhapsodies, continued

Phanes, Night, and the Hesiodic Theogony…

Archetypal and Material Creations…

Orphic Paradoxes: Night and Dream as the World of Reality…

The Orphic Dionysus and the Duality of Man…

In the heavens, Phanes then created the sun and the moon, and the mountains and cities, and men, though not of our race, but the blessed men of the Golden Age. (The Orphic Golden Age, as we’ll see, is what later Platonists interpreted as “the first world”, the purely incorporeal, eternal, immutable, blessed, and perfect archetypal heaven from which the corrupt material order was later created as by a fall.)

Then Phanes, being both male and female, bore to himself a daughter, Night, whom he took as consort and to whom he gave great power. Night alone was privileged to look upon her father; above all, she received from Phanes the authority to make laws, and the gift of prophecy, which she exercised in giving oracles from her darkened cave. Indeed, eventually, Phanes handed over to her his scepter, and she became the next in order of the rulers of the universe.

Night then bore to Phanes Gaia and Ouranos (Earth and Heaven), who in turn were the parents of the Titans Kronos, Rhea, Okeanos, and the rest of that pre-Olympian race of gods familiar from Homer and especially from Hesiod’s great cosmogonic epic, the Theogony. To Ouranos, she handed over the supreme power; and then there follow in the Rhapsodies the familiar Greek stories about the Titans, the supremacy of Kronos, his mutilation of his father Ouranos, his marriage to Rhea, his swallowing of his children and the trick by which Rhea preserved the life of Zeus and caused the others to be disgorged into the light of day. We hear, again, of the Kuretes who guarded the Cretan Zeus from Kronos in his birth cave near Mt. Ida, and thus we are now approaching our own era in the long succession of divine dynasties.


In the present “Orphic” age, Zeus is king, but he is also creator. How can this be, inasmuch as all was created long before he was born? The Orphic cosmogonist solves the problem in an ingenious, if mythologically hackneyed way.

Zeus simply swallows Phanes, and with him all things that exist. Thus, all things were, in and by Zeus, created anew: the celestial aether and the terrestrial sky, the sea and earth, great Ocean and the depths of Tartarus beneath it, all the blessed gods and goddesses, now reborn from Zeus’ cosmically pregnant belly.

The world of Zeus’ creation is, of course, the Platonic second world: the fallen material order in which we live. And yet by swallowing Phanes, Zeus assimilated, embodied, and bodied forth the incorporeal totality of the previous world. The world of Zeus is thus the conjunctio oppositorum of eternity and time, of the unseen archetypes and their visible material reflections. As the late-fourth-century A.D. Neoplatonist Proclus puts it, “After he had devoured Phanes, the essential forms of the universe became manifest in Zeus.”

Notably, in all of this work, Zeus seeks the advice of Night, who has lost none of her dignity as the supreme counselor and prophetic power to whom even the highest of the gods must now show deference; it was Night who proposed the plan for the overthrow of Kronos whose place Zeus would occupy, and it is Night who now advises him on the details and sequence of creation.

The importance of Night for the Orphics should be clear enough. She symbolizes the unconscious depths into which we descend in sleep and dream when the outer senses lapse into abeyance, and into which the soul passes after death in the other world. The great cycle which the soul undergoes of incarnations in this world and disembodied sojourns in the other world has its parallel in the daily alternation between the sleeping and waking state.

It is thus a regnant paradox of Orphism, as of all the philosophical schools that it inspired, that the physical world perceived by the waking senses is really a dream of unreality, and that only in the other world of sleep and death does the soul apprehend ultimate reality and touch the Divine. Even the Christian Father Clement of Alexandria is moved to agree with Plato and the Orphics that man’s birth in the body is a death, and his material existence a sleep of unreality, as Plato teaches in the myth of the Cave:

Plato, again, in the seventh book of the Republic [521 c], has called “the day here nocturnal”, and the descent of the soul into the body, sleep [533 c] and death…(Clement, Stromata V, xiv)

In the Rhapsodies, we now hear of the birth of Athena from Zeus’ head, and the birth to Zeus by Demeter of Kore-Persephone. With his daughter Persephone in turn, Zeus conceives Dionysus, to whom he hands over his power.

He sets Dionysus on the throne and puts his own scepter in his hand, saying to the gods, “Give ear…This one have I made your king.” The rest of the story is the conjoint property of Orphic and Dionysian mystery: it recounts the Titans’ becoming jealous of the new god; and their being incited to plot against him by Hera (who had her own reasons for resenting Zeus’ latest love child)

Distracting Dionysus with a mirror and other baubles, they set upon him while he is playing with his toys, slay him, and tear his body to pieces. Having dismembered the infant god, they cast his parts into a cauldron, boil them, and eat of his flesh. Fortunately, Dionysus’ heart is saved by Athena, and from it Zeus causes him to be reborn yet again: Dionysus, the dithyrambus, the “twice-born”.

The story mirrors the infancy narrative of the Cretan Zeus, who is taken from his mother Rhea to be nursed in Crete and protected by the armed Kuretes, whose ecstatic shouts and exuberant clashing of spears muffle the baby’s cries, and so save him from the infanticidal rage of his father Kronos. When we return to the myth of Dionysus in later installments of this series, we’ll have occasion to observe the close connections between Dionysian and Cretan religion: the syncretistic identification between Dionysus and the Cretan Zeus, and between Dionysus’ thiasos of Bacchantes and the infant Zeus’ retinue of Kuretes. Recognizing these affinities, the Orphics explicitly assimilated both cults in their own.

In retribution, as the Rhapsodies continue, Zeus launches his thunderbolt at the Titans, burns them up, and from their ashes arises the race of mortal men. Man’s nature is thus duplex: from the Titans, wicked sons of earth, we inherit all that is carnal, sensual, earthly, and appetitive in us; from Dionysus, all that is heavenly and divine.

It is thus to Dionysus that the Orphics send their prayers, “yearning to be set free from our sinful ancestry.” Dionysus can free us, wherefore we call him “Liberator”, “Dionysus the immortal”, the “resurrected”. Of Dionysus’ divinity there is yet a smouldering ember in each and every one of us. And knowing this, the aim of mortal life is clear: to purge away the gross titanic element, and in its place, to nurture and exalt the Dionysian.

At this point, the Orphic cosmogony leaves off.