The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXVIII

The Duality of Man…

The Orphic Life: Purgation of the “Titanic”, Cultivation of the “Dionysian”…

Orphic Abstinences…

Mystic Dromena


Liberation from the Weary Wheel…

The awareness that man, being a creature of Dionysian and Titanic origin, is a composite of divine and mortal, spiritual and carnal, good and evil, is the essential datum of Orphism, and dawns in Greece for the first time. It is probably the most original and far-reaching intuition in the history of theology and philosophy. In living his life in full awareness of the duality of the human person, the Orphic becomes apprised of something akin to the later Christian doctrine of original sin.

For the first time in the history of religion, moreover, the psychological conditions are in place for a conscious, autonomous, and self-initiated soteriological method. Man is able to redeem himself merely by living the Orphic life: by mortifying the Titanic, and compensatorily reinvigorating the Dionysian, components of his inheritance.

For the Orphic, the Titanic denotes much the same thing as St. Paul means by the “Old” or “Outer Man”, or the “Old Adam”; it is not just the congenital human predilection to vice or sin, but that predilection understood as inherent in the unfortunate fact of his embodiment in the flesh and the world, sorely lamented by the Orphic as a “fall”, “exile”, “captivity”, and denaturing. Since the carnal envelope cuts the Dionysian soul off from the divine patria to which it originally and rightfully belongs, it is conceived as a prison and tomb.

The salvation of the Orphic consists, then, in his lifelong purgation of the external Titanic (i.e. worldly and carnal) component, his withdrawal therefrom into the capsule of the divine occulted in his psychic depths, and the soul’s eventual liberation from the body and world and flight back into the celestial aether. This redemptive regime is undergone both in this life and the next; through a long series of reincarnations and otherworldly convalescences, that is, the soul gradually purges itself of and atones for past sins and injustices. Finally, when the prescribed cycle of earthly lives, sojourns in the afterworld, and rebirths in the present, has been accomplished, and the soul has been completely cleansed of its taints, it returns to the heavenly regions whence it came, “the pure in communion with the pure”, as Socrates puts it in the Phaedo.


The Orphic life was thus dedicated to righteousness, sobriety, and purity; it included abstentions from every form of sensual pleasure, luxury, or superfluity, including the consumption of meat. The formal reason for the last, if not already obvious, is made so in a famous jibe by the philosopher Xenophanes at Pythagoras, who having come across a man beating a dog, supposedly exclaimed, “Stop. I recognize his voice. He was a friend of mine”. The solemn prohibition against the killing of animals, who were regarded as man’s brothers, ensured that the Orphic would not interfere with the migration of souls. The Orphics were forbidden to eat eggs, besides, not only because of their belief in transmigration, but because in the rhapsodic cosmogony, as we have seen, Phanes’ World-Egg is the sacred principle of life.

Beyond these abstinences, there were also certain formal rites of initiation or communion, teletai and dromena. About their exact nature, unfortunately, we know even less than we do about the secret mysteries of Pythagoras or Eleusis. It seems to have been established by scholars, at least, that the Orphic initiates were painted with lime and plaster, to symbolize the Titanic residue that clings to man’s being. Having been thereby dramatically reminded of their “original sin”, there ensued a dromenon in which the mystai re-enacted, or rather re-actualized, the life and sufferings of Dionysus. It has been suggested that the dromenon ended with an epiphany of Phanes; but whatever the culminating rite, there is no doubt that, as at Eleusis, it convinced the initiate of his rebirth and exaltation to the state of the divine.


But from references in Plato, it may be inferred that the Orphic life was intended to stress moral uprightness in general, rather more than ritual purity or the formal observation of such liturgical obligations. The Orphic doctrine of a retributive afterlife is directly of a piece with this.

It has been said that the Orphics were the first believers in Hell. There is no doubt that for the impure and the evildoers the Orphics furnished an appropriate hereafter of unremitting gloom and torment. From the meager notices in Homer and the classical poets, they constructed an elaborate underworld topography, which they populated with an ever-burgeoning cast of righteous judges, incurable sinners, and terrifying monsters. Most of the great poetic and religious accounts of descents into the underworld — including those recorded throughout Plato, in Virgil’s sixth Aeneid, in the early Christian narrative of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, and in Dante’s Inferno — are directly or indirectly dependent upon the Orphic eschatological schema.


The Orphic eschatology is a complex system of myths and dogma, which can be partly reconstructed by synthesizing the accounts of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, the archaic poet Pindar, and Plato especially; it can be summarized as follows:

At death, our souls descend to Hades, the road to which, as Socrates says in the Phaedo and Gorgias, is forked. In the Republic, we learn that the just are allowed to take the right-hand fork, toward the Elysian Fields, whereas the unjust are sent ad sinistrum. This is all dramatically confirmed by the verses on the gold funereal plates from southern Italy, in which the righteous spirit is welcomed with the words: “Hail, hail, to thee journeying the right-hand road, to holy meadows and groves of Persephone”. But the soul is also given these admonitory instructions:

Thou shalt find to the left of the house of Hades a spring. To this spring approach not near. But thou shalt find another, from the lake of Memory, cold water flowing forth, and there are guardians before it. Say, “I am a child of Earth and starry heaven. But my race is of the heavens alone. This ye know yourselves. But I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly the cold water of the lake of Memory.” And of themselves they will give thee to drink of the holy spring, and thereafter among the other heroes thou shalt dwell.

In Plato’s myth of Er in book X of the Republic, all souls destined for reincarnation are forced to drink from the river Lethe to make them forget their experiences in the other world. Those who are wise avoid drinking too much, but this is difficult, since they have just come through the stifling heat of the desert plain of Lethe. The soul of the Orphic, which is considered to have achieved its final incarnation, must avoid drinking from Lethe altogether. As this soul proclaims in triumph, “I have flown out of the weary wheel.”


The whole circuit of the weary wheel went something like this. The soul dies and is judged, being assigned, in accordance with its merits, either to severe punishment in Tartarus or relative happiness in the Elysian Fields. In either case, the sojourn there is temporary. After a lapse of time which together with its earthly life-span fulfilled a period of a thousand years, it was required to submit to another incarnation. At this point in Plato occurs the episode of the choice of life. Then, after drinking from Lethe, the soul is reborn in a mortal body, either human or animal, in either case, a rank or species of which that reflected its moral progress.

The ordinary (uninitiated) mortal could expect to complete the cycle ten times before salvation could be hoped for. The Orphic who chose a righteous life three times in succession received a special dispensation whereby he could make his final escape from the weary wheel.

But besides these two categories, there was a third, that of the incurable sinners. These were consigned eternally to Tartarus to serve as an admonition to others. As one would expect, they included the traditional arch-sinners we first encounter in Homer’s epics (Tantalus, Sisyphus, Ixion, Tityus, and so on); but through the ages of Orphic influence upon the mythology of the underworld, their company continued to grow.

Elysium, or the Islands of the Blessed, is according to this doctrine only a temporary resort, where those who have lived a virtuous life are rewarded with the happiness they have earned for the remainder of the thousand year cycle. But at the end of it, they too must return to the meadow of choice to be reborn in a mortal body. In fact, Elysium ought be regarded as a testing-place, for Plato says that a period of ease, without the discipline of suffering, may seduce a soul into being careless in its choice of its next life.


Where, then, does the soul go, when it has finally escaped the weary wheel? It plunges back into the celestial aether whence it came. In conformity with practically all of the theologians and philosophers of antiquity, the Orphics regarded the human soul as composed of the element air; but if the soul which is condemned to be reborn into a mortal body — because it has not yet completed its cycle of purgation — , is said to be airy, the completely purified soul will become aetherial. It will travel beyond the lower and less pure regions of air into the lucid aether of the celestial sphere, like to like, divine to divine.

This is the final hope and telos of the Orphic life — to become one with the divine Mind which is at the same time the fiery aether that ensouls and orders the entire cosmos. To it the human soul is akin, but active sin, and even passive contact with the senses and the world, have cut it off, an exile to be enclosed in a body which is nothing but a prison and a tomb.

If the soul can remember its own celestial and divine origins and essential nature, if it can cleanse the impurities that have infected it through contact with the flesh and the world, and still cling to it even after death, deification will be its reward. The judges of the underworld will greet it with the cry: “Happy and blessed one, thou are become god instead of mortal”.