Orpheus: Thracian bard, student of Moses, or mosaic villa decor?

(OR, The Empire of Orpheus)

Matthew Fox

(as delivered 3/27/2004, at UNC-Duke graduate student colloquium, “Fashion, Trend, and Novelty,” Chapel Hill, NC) (UNC 2004 ppt)

[Handout Items at end of main text, or here: UNC 2004 handout pdf]

Genuinely new research sometimes does get done. Archaeologists, for instance, are constantly digging new things out of the earth, enlarging the total presence of past human lives in the here and now, and potentially also our understanding of those lives. So too, someone does think up a really new idea now and then. But much of what we do as scholars and researchers is repetitive and recursive, and necessarily so. Since we live in a world of time, for some things to have the illusion of endurance we must engage in processes of cultural reproduction. What we value (and sometimes what we have ceased to value) gets cycled into the next generation through tradition and reception, a giving and receiving, leaving and taking. In many traditional societies, and in antiquity, a much higher value was placed on reproducing the patterns and standards of the past, and novelty per se was often rejected and even punished, and, where it did occur, it was often denied. In our own time, on the other hand, pressures to innovate at all costs often drive the next generation to absurdities and confusion. To say the least, innovation as a premium standard of value can, in its results, be just as reckless and wasteful as a rigidly traditional mindset. It seems to me that we might, even while valuing innovation, do more to acknowledge the necessary and active role of reception and reproduction in our own culture. Often our most innovative insights come from looking at old things through new eyes. This process of assimilating what has gone before into contemporary collective paradigms can be both innovative and deeply traditional. By asking of old things questions that seem relevant to contemporary issues, we may simultaneously preserve, and honor, the past, contribute to the present, and hopefully the future.

I preface my talk today on Orpheus in antiquity with these remarks partly as an apology for the shameless repetitiveness of most of my materials. In considering the figure of Orpheus, as well-trodden a path in classics as one could find, I won’t be showing off any new texts or images (though I hope some of them will be new to some of you.) Nor in thinking about Orpheus’ reception will I, here at least, be pushing far beyond what previous scholars have already brought to light. But I will, I think, be trying to look at these materials with you through new eyes, by asking them questions that make sense to us today, that may resonate with contemporary styles of thought and inquiry.

The focus of today’s conference on fashion and style is a case in point. As I understand it, the notion of style has emerged in contemporary cultural criticism as a way out of several conceptual impasses in older styles of thinking about acculturation and the construction of identity. In particular, theories of culture that emerged in Euro-American anthropology, out of nineteenth and early twentieth-century colonial systems of experience, focused on racial as well as generic patterns of dress and appearance, and tended to reify ethnic stereotypes, without considering deeper processes of how those stereotypes are constituted, or how they could serve to symbolize other kinds of differences felt, perceived, and maintained among and between different groups of people living in proximity or in the same society. In other words, while earlier anthropological theory of culture tended to parallel and even legitimize what were, at root, simply Euro-American ethnic stereotypes, more recently theorists have been interested in the processes-as well as the ethics, politics, and aesthetics-of how ethnically charged symbols, like all other symbols, are marshaled for the purposes of constructing identity; for establishing and negotiating power relations; and for how groups of individuals assert, maintain, and insist on their rights, prerogatives or points of view vis-a-vis other, competing groups with alternative rights, prerogative and points of view.

As an entryway into the ancient world for these sorts of questions, I think Orpheus provides a very useful figure. For Orpheus had a long and polymorphic iconographic history in antiquity. Indeed, the famous singer is virtually coeval with classical antiquity, and he even survived the wreckage of classical antiquity in the Latin West far better than most of the Olympian gods or legendary heroes of the Hellenic past. I have been trying to think about Orpheus over the long-term, to understand his great success and to figure out the role he played as a symbolic negotiator in cultural changes, often radical, over the centuries. When regarded over the long-term, Orpheus reveals some very interesting trends of patterned transformation and development.

In antiquity Orpheus appears mainly in three overlapping spheres: literary texts, religious thought and practice, and in nonliterary art media. These three Orphic manifestations have not always been correlated in convincing ways. Specifically, it has not generally been appreciated that between the classical period and the rise of a Hellenistic Rome, a gradual but radical mainstreaming of Orpheus was taking place. In the classical period, both in 5th and 4th century texts, Orpheus is rather a laughingstock. The tragedians rarely refer to him and his charms without their tongue in their cheek. [see #1-3 on handout]. The tragic gaze at Orpheus tends to oscillate between skeptical amusement and contempt. This ambivalent, dismissive attitude persists: Phaedrus in Plato’s Symposium calls Orpheus a “soft” kitharodist, too weak-spirited to die for the one he loved like Alcestis [handout #5]. And to judge from the popularity of Orpheus’ violent death at the hands of maenads on classical vase-painting [SLIDE 1], the Thracian singer was viewed as somewhat of a “beautiful loser.”

This attitude in elite literary and dramatic texts is consistent with the religious connections of Orpheus at the time. His name was connected with cultural options and styles of living that were, from the centrist perspective of elite Greek males, the antithesis of Hellenic political values. As Detienne has argued, what was known in a generic way as the Orphic religious milieu represented a “rejection of the values of the polis” (2002: 156, et al.): including, rejections of blood sacrifice and/or meat-eating, an otherworldly emphasis in funerary rituals, notions of sexual celibacy, and a promulgation of magical texts and cosmologies strangely divergent from any Hesiodic Olympian orthodoxy [the passage in Hippolytus is important here; #4 on handout]. The noisy “babble of books” (bibliôn homadon) that Adeimantus summons up, in support of an unassailable argument against living a just life, in book 2 of Plato’s Republic, [handout #6] is the clearest sign of a cultural world in which textuality and multiculturalism were beginning to trouble many self-proclaimed masters of truth (like Plato, for one). Late classical texts like this make it clear that anxieties about the power of writing to fragment collective belief and practice, while at the same time empowering marginalized social sectors to assert heterodox opinions, were not uncommon-and the name of Orpheus came to stand for them by metonymy.

In this light it is instructive that Orpheus appears on the radar in Hellenistic times in connection with Jewish negotiations of cultural and religious identity in a Greek-dominated world. In texts like the diatheke or Testament of Orpheus [#7 on handout], the Thracian singer, a suitably marginal character in the legendary landscape of Greek myth, is ingeniously appropriated to make that most oxymoronic of culturally innovative claims: Hebraic monotheism trumps Hellenic notions of the divine because the former is far older than the latter, since Orpheus (it is claimed) learned his knowledge from Moses long before the Trojan War. Later, Christians too would co-opt this appeal to a more venerable, more ancient tradition for their religious innovations. But they would also, as we’ll see, exploit Orpheus to make a more open appeal to novelty, innovation, and newness. Note a new dynamic, however. While Orpheus was a new interloper on the Hellenic scene in the 6th and 5th centuries, and only gradually gaining a cultural currency, by the 3rd and 2nd centuries his very antiquity provides a prop for authoritative claims. He has, by now, gained the prestige of the traditional; the name Orpheus, repeated often enough, has grown numinous.

The mainstreaming of Orpheus as a symbolic figurehead of heterodoxy and pluralism in the 3rd to 1st centuries can easily be correlated with the burgeoning cosmopoleis of Hellenistic times; the cities were bigger than ever before and their populations far more heterogeneous. A figure like Orpheus was well-suited for rhetorical synthesis of beliefs and practices of diverse cultural origins. But Orpheus’ persisting and increasing popularity hints also, I think, at a growing alienation, as an uneasy gap between individual and collective identities widened. Negotiating identity in these brave new urban worlds must have been tortuous, and ethnicity was being politicized in new ways. But also the spheres of public and private underwent transformations, and Orpheus again was instrumental in these negotiations. For what is involved here is a mainstreaming of a tradition that originated in rejecting the values of the city. Continuing this tradition, the Orphic turning away becomes a turning inward, opening up spaces for private identities, beliefs and practices that are not necessarily in agreement with or stipulated by options emanating from public authorities. As the potential distance widened between public faces and private preoccupations, between public acts and private thoughts, Orpheus’ engagement with matters of life and death, and his eventual retreat into a contemplative, natural setting for sentimental and moving musical reflection, became a fashionable trope, especially among the educated and those with aspirations to culture. Each of the urbane, sophisticated poets who largely defined the Augustan periods relation with Hellenism, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid, not only took up the Orphic tradition but branded on it their stamp for later stereotypic reproduction.

Perhaps more than any of the other Augustan crystallizations of Orpheus, Ovid’s image of the sad singer to the trees and animals set the stage for his efflorescence in Roman pavement mosaic during Imperial times. Indeed, Orpheus’ song in Metamorphoses Book 10 is a brilliant compendium of the accretive Orientalizing strands of Hellenistic culture; the stories in Orpheus’ book-length song relate to the Near East, and are stories that had been assimilated to the pluralistic Hellenic mainstream: Cybele and Attis; Cyprian Pygmalion; Cinyras and Myrrha; Venus and Adonis [passages from 10 and 11 are handout #8]. And while I appreciated Jesnick’s claim-whose 1997 study of Orpheus in Roman mosaic is an invaluable resource-that literary texts cannot be taken as direct influences on the formation of visual imagery (p. 119), nevertheless, Ovid’s vivid depictions of the singer, in language no doubt accessible to anyone with a modicum of literacy, can probably be taken as a formative influence on the domestication of Orpheus and the animals that occurred in Imperial floor mosaics. Not only does Ovid provide the image of an Orphic locus amoenus, a song-filled natural landscape apart from the madding crowd; he is also the first to associate Orpheus with that preeminent sphere of urbane Romanitas, the arena with its cheery spectacles of gore. Jesnick sees a strong link between the African inflections of the Orpheus mosaic scenes and the menagerie industry that sustained the blood sports in countless urban arenas, mostly at the expense of African biodiversity.

Consider what has happened. Orpheus has gone not only from marginal to mainstream, but also from popular to elite. Jesnick’s study reveals the staggering proliferation of Orpheus in the stereotyped arts of Roman culture. His iconography appears in palace murals (both the Domus Aurea and the Villa Hadriana), on silver and gold plate, vase paintings, marble relief and sculpture , coins , gems, ivories, perhaps even on painted signs of inns and taverns (pp. 14-17). The pavement mosaics, of which around 85 have been excavated to date, and in which Orpheus and the animals is the only known theme, are found all across the empire. They date between the mid 2nd century and the 6th century CE. [cycle through mosaics:] They’re contexts are instructive; almost exclusively they appear in the private spaces of reception and banquet halls of homes, whether in urban areas or in country villas; and secondarily, in the equally intimate spaces of funerary monuments, such as the Christian catacombs in Rome or in Syrian interments. In Jesnick’s words, “Orpheus singing to the charmed circle of animals could be interpreted as an allegory of the pax Romana” (p. 109); and a glance at Jesnicks’ distribution map of the mosaics makes it apparent that Orpheus was truly coextensive with Roman influence. Orpheus was, indeed, a Roman culture-bearer in a symbolic but no less real way here; his appeal to elite patrons from Britain to Spain to Africa to Syria, whatever else it means, indicates that the Thracian charmer of animals was a figurative mandala of sorts for reflection on the power, and aspirations to power and importance, of those patrons. Looking at the map, the Roman Empire begins to look like the empire of Orpheus, perhaps somewhat analogously to how a map of McDonald’s locations in the world today might delineate the real extent of American cultural influence [repeat map]. Orpheus, it would seem, achieved nearly total market saturation.

The immense cultural prestige of Orpheus even by the early Empire, verging easily on banality and cliché, must be factored into any discussion of early Christian negotiations with the singer. There has been a tendency, exemplified in Friedman’s study Orpheus in the Middle Ages (1970:39), to reason that it was “his association with Jesus [that] helped to keep Orpheus alive during the early centuries of the Church.” With Jesnick (p. 111), however, I think this reasoning is backwards-though it may stand to reason for Orpheus’ strong survival in medieval Christian Europe. But it is Christ, not Orpheus, who stood in need of prestige in the early centuries of the struggling Christian communities. Christ, the crucified criminal become son of god, was the one who stood in dire need of persuasive and authoritative associations. Unlike the savior of this strange, otherworldly and ascetic Jewish sect, the appeal of Orpheus was ecumenical. What was not to like, after all? You might be a pagan Roman or Greek, a Jew, Christian, even tribal African, Gaul or German; but the appeal of Orpheus, it seems, cut across these ties. Anyone who knew something of the basic Orpheus stories, and even if you did not, the metonymy of its visual and mythological references reminds one of basic “human” categories: life and love and death, animal and human, beauty, art, song, nature. It is a sort of non-threatening mandala image to contemplate, either alone or in close-knit groups, away from the anonymous bustling spaces of the crowded outdoors. Conversely, in rural areas, like Roman Britain where it flourished in 4th-century villa decor, it might remind one in the midst of a wild, rural environment, of the tamed and cultivated world, far flung and distant as it was, to which the provinces ultimately belonged.

The genius of certain Christian apologists was to co-opt this immense cultural prestige and make it work for their own, culturally revolutionary ends. The ironic thing about Christian rhetoric that exploits the name of Orpheus is that earlier, in the classical period, his name had referred to anti-secular and otherworldly religious orientations that were very much like the new Christian package. Only now, Orpheus becomes a name by which to abuse and rail against all the pagan bloodiness, secular exuberance and joie d’vivre that the Christian monks, bishops and apologists rejected. Moreover, from the perspective of the history of religion, the Christian version of salvation and resurrection in Christ was in many ways a new face, a new crystallization around much older popular strata of salvific practice and belief that had for a long time been homogenized, no doubt falsely, under the name of Orpheus. Christianity was Orphism, only “new and improved.” This is clear when we read beneath the explicit message to the implicit rhetoric in Clement of Alexandria’s [handout #9] praise of the “new song” that “has made men out of stones, men out of beasts,” which has the power to bring its listeners to life again. In other words, the insistence that Orpheus is not like Christ only makes sense as a positive claim, “Christ is like Orpheus, but better, the real Orpheus, new and improved.”

This assertion of novelty as improvement, fulfillment, and renewal was probably the most radical victory of the long-term Christian assault on conservative and backward-looking Romanitas. Casting it in many different forms, Christians rode it all the way up the social ladder from despised minority to the heart of imperial power. And Eusebius, episcopal lackey of Constantine and first official revisionist historian of the legitimized Church, exposes the ruse when in his praise of Constantine [handout #10] he fully and lovingly co-opts the prestigious metaphorical power of Orpheus the musical charmer for Christ, the soul-subduer, the tamer of human and animal, civilized and savage alike.

Brief Epilogue, Woodchester and Anglo-Saxon Orpheus

One of the largest, most spectacular Orpheus mosaics is under the grass in the churchyard of Woodchester, in south England [churchyard slide]. Over 2,200 square feet in size, the mosaic adorned the floor of a large hall in a sprawling 26 acre, 65-room villa complex begun probably in the early 2nd century. The mosaic was installed later, in the early 4th century. [replica slide] It’s days were short, however. Germanic invaders were entering the island, Roman legions were retreating, and at least part of the villa burned before the end of the 4th century. The villa, or parts of it, may have been occupied until the 8th century, long enough to receive the name Uiuduceaster (the castrum in the place-name referring to the villa as a lordly fortification). [other slides of Lyson’s drawing]

The many physical remains of the Roman period, however, defined the cultural landscape of Anglo-Saxon England, often referred to as the ruined “works of giants” in the meditative poems of Anglo-Saxon scops, or oral-formulaic singers. [part of Ruin on handout]. When King Alfred (849-899) in the late 9th century translated Boethius’ (475-ca. 524) Consolation of Philosophy into his native English, he expanded into a longer prose version the 58 lines of Boethius’ Orpheus poem (III.m12), itself a centerpiece in the flow of that work’s lyrical-philosophical argument. Alfred describes Orpheus,  as a hearpere…swiðe ungefrǣglice good [“a harper, so very good it was unheard of”]. Reading Alfred’s rendition one detects an interest in the tale beyond a desire for fidelity to the Latin original; the story, I would suggest, resonated with native, local traditions, since the descent to the underworld and musical charms over nature were also part of the Germanic cultural heritage [Odin, etc. Havamal runes; Baldr’s dreams]. To Germanic ears as well the name of Thrace took on new meaning, since it was in that region of the classical geography where Germanic groups situated their own origins; Orfeus the hearpere of the Thracia ðiode might well have reminded the Saxon king of the Gotan of Sciððiu who had conquered the Romana rice and eall Italia at the opening of the Consolation, and of king Theodoric who had imprisoned Boethius. Orpheus, across the centuries of literary text, villa decor, and religious syncretism, had found another congenial transmigration: into a living, but textualizing, oral song culture truly akin to his long-lost Thracian origins. And still he was there at his age-old center, mediating difference, spanning divides of cultural distance, broadcasting his powerful mythic song of harmonious order, control over nature, and overwhelming, all-compelling authority.



1. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1629

(Aegisthus taunting the chorus)

᾿Ορφεῖ δὲ γλῶσσαν τὴν ἐναντίαν ἔχεις·

“You have a tongue opposite that of Orpheus.”

2. Euripides, Cyclops 646-7

ἀλλ’ οἶδ’ ἐπωιδὴν ᾿Ορφέως ἀγαθὴν πάνυ,

ὥστ’ αὐτόματον τὸν δαλὸν ἐς τὸ κρανίον

στείχονθ’ ὑφάπτειν τὸν μονῶπα παῖδα γῆς.

“But I know a charm of Orpheus, a good one,

to make that brand, all on its own, to the skull

march up and torch the one-eyed son of earth.”

3. Euripides, Alcestis 963-70

ἐγὼ καὶ διὰ μούσας

καὶ μετάρσιος ᾖξα, καὶ

πλείστων ἁψάμενος λόγων

κρεῖσσον οὐδὲν Ἀνάγκας

ηὗρον οὐδέ τι φάρμακον

Θρήισσαις ἐν σανίσιν, τὰς

᾿Ορφεία κατέγραψεν


“With the Muse I have flown, even through the sky,

and of great reasonings I have seized upon none

greater than Necessity, nor have I found any cure

in Thracian tablets which the voice of Orpheus wrote down.”

4. Euripides, Hippolytus 936-7, 948-57

(Theseus railing against Hippolytus)

φεῦ τῆς βροτείας — ποῖ προβήσεται; — φρενός.

τί τέρμα τόλμης καὶ θράσους γενήσεται;….

σὺ δὴ θεοῖσιν ὡς περισσὸς ὢν ἀνὴρ

ξύνει; σὺ σώφρων καὶ κακῶν ἀκήρατος;

οὐκ ἂν πιθοίμην τοῖσι σοῖς κόμποις ἐγὼ       (950)

θεοῖσι προσθεὶς ἀμαθίαν φρονεῖν κακῶς.

ἤδη νυν αὔχει καὶ δι’ ἀψύχου βορᾶς

σίτοις καπήλευ’ ᾿Ορφέα τ’ ἄνακτ’ ἔχων

βάκχευε πολλῶν γραμμάτων τιμῶν καπνούς·

ἐπεί γ’ ἐλήφθης. τοὺς δὲ τοιούτους ἐγὼ        (955)

φεύγειν προφωνῶ πᾶσι· θηρεύουσι γὰρ

σεμνοῖς λόγοισιν, αἰσχρὰ μηχανώμενοι.

Oh mortal heart, how far will it go? What limit of daring and boldness will there be?…Are you indeed an exceptional man, communing with gods? You, self-controlled and untouched by evils? I’ll never be persuaded by your clatter to think poorly and impute folly to gods! Keep on boasting and peddle your meatless diet with your lord Orpheus, revel with Bacchus honoring the smoke of many writings-but you’ve been found out: I declare to all, flee men like this; for they prey on you with holy words, devising shameful acts.”

5. Plato, Symposium 179d

(Phaedrus’ speech on love)

᾿Ορφέα δὲ τὸν Οἰάγρου ἀτελῆ ἀπέπεμψαν ἐξ ῞Αιδου, φάσμα δείξαντες τῆς γυναικὸς ἐφ’ ἣν ἧκεν, αὐτὴν δὲ οὐ δόντες, ὅτι μαλθακίζεσθαι ἐδόκει, ἅτε ὢν κιθαρῳδός, καὶ οὐ τολμᾶν ἕνεκα τοῦ ἔρωτος ἀποθνῄσκειν ὥσπερ ῎Αλκηστις, ἀλλὰ διαμηχανᾶσθαι ζῶν εἰσιέναι εἰς ῞Αιδου.

“Orpheus, son of Oeagrus, they sent back from Hades in failure, showing him a shade of his wife for whom he came, not giving her very self, since he seemed soft, being a kitharode, and not daring to die for love like Alcestis, but devising to descend to Hades alive.”

6. Plato, Republic 364e-65a

βίβλων δὲ ὅμαδον παρέχονται Μουσαίου καὶ Ὀρφέως, Σελήνης τε καὶ Μουσῶν ἐκγόνων, ὥς φασι, καθ’ ἃς θυηπολοῦσιν, πείθοντες οὐ μόνον ἰδιώτας ἀλλὰ καὶ πόλεις, ὡς ἄρα λύσεις τε καὶ καθαρμοὶ ἀδικημάτων+ διὰ θυσιῶν καὶ παιδιᾶς ἡδονῶν εἰσι μὲν ἔτι ζῶσιν, εἰσὶ δὲ καὶ τελευτήσασιν, ἃς δὴ τελετὰς καλοῦσιν, αἳ τῶν ἐκεῖ κακῶν ἀπολύουσιν ἡμᾶς, μὴ θύσαντας δὲ δεινὰ περιμένει.

And they bring forth a loud babble of books by Mousaeus and Orpheus, born from the Moon and the Muses, they say, according to which they conduct sacrifices, persuading not only individuals but cities too that there are deliverances and purifications from unjust deeds, through sacrifices and pleasures of child’s play while one is still alive, and for the dead there are what they call “last rites,” which will release us from evils there, but for those who haven’t sacrificed dreadful things are in store.”

7. Diatheke (“Testament”) of Orpheus (ca. 3rd-2nd cent. BCE?) (Eusebius of Caesarea, Praeparatio Evangelica bk 13, ch. 12; citing Aristobulus the Peripatetic, a 2nd c. BCE Alexandrian Jew.)

“Δεῖ γὰρ λαμβάνειν τὴν θείαν φωνὴν οὐ ῥητὸν λόγον, ἀλλ’ ἔργων κατασκευάς, καθὼς καὶ διὰ τῆς νομοθεσίας ἡμῖν ὅλην τὴν γένεσιν τοῦ κόσμου θεοῦ λόγους εἴρηκεν ὁ Μωσῆς. συνεχῶς γάρ φησιν ἐφ’ ἑκάστου· ‘καὶ εἶπεν ὁ

(4.) θεὸς, καὶ ἐγένετο.’ δοκοῦσι δέ μοι περιειργασμένοι πάντα κατηκολουθηκέναι τούτῳ Πυθαγόρας τε καὶ Σωκράτης καὶ Πλάτων λέγοντες ἀκούειν φωνῆς θεοῦ, τὴν κατασκευὴν τῶν ὅλων συνθεωροῦντες ἀκριβῶς ὑπὸ θεοῦ γεγονυῖαν καὶ συνεχομένην ἀδιαλείπτως. ἔτι δὲ καὶ ᾿Ορφεὺς ἐν ποιήμασι τῶν κατὰ τὸν ῾Ιερὸν Λόγον αὐτῷ λεγομένων οὕτως ἐκτίθεται περὶ τοῦ διακρατεῖσθαι θείᾳ δυνάμει τὰ πάντα καὶ γενητὰ ὑπάρχειν καὶ ἐπὶ πάντων εἶναι τὸν θεόν. λέγει δ’ οὕτως·

φθέγξομαι οἷς θέμις ἐστί, θύρας δ’ ἐπίθεσθε βέβηλοι,

φεύγοντες δικαίων θεσμούς, θείοιο τιθέντος

πᾶσιν ὁμοῦ· σὺ δ’ ἄκουε, φαεσφόρου ἔκγονε Μήνης

Μουσαῖ’. ἐξενέπω γὰρ ἀληθέα· μηδέ σε τὰ πρὶν

ἐν στήθεσσι φανέντα φίλης αἰῶνος ἀμέρσῃ, (5)

εἰς δὲ λόγον θεῖον βλέψας τούτῳ προσέδρευε,

ἰθύνων κραδίης νοερὸν κύτος· εὖ δ’ ἐπίβαινε

ἀτραπιτοῦ, μοῦνον δ’ ἐσόρα κόσμοιο τυπωτὴν

ἀθάνατον. παλαιὸς δὲ λόγος περὶ τοῦδε φαείνει·

Εἷς ἔστ’ αὐτοτελής, αὐτοῦ δ’ ὕπο πάντα τελεῖται,  (10)

ἐν δ’ αὐτοῖς αὐτὸς περινίσσεται, οὐδέ τις αὐτὸν

εἰσοράᾳ ψυχὴν θνητῶν, νῷ δ’ εἰσοράαται.

αὐτὸς δ’ ἐξ ἀγαθῶν θνητοῖς κακὸν οὐκ ἐπιτέλλει

ἀνθρώποις· αὐτῷ δὲ χάρις καὶ μῖσος ὀπηδεῖ·

καὶ πόλεμος καὶ λοιμὸς ἰδ’ ἄλγεα δακρυόεντα· (15)

οὐδέ τίς ἐσθ’ ἕτερος. σὺ δέ κεν ῥέα πάντ’ ἐσορήσω,

αἴ κεν ἴδῃς αὐτόν· πρὶν δή ποτε δεῦρ’ ἐπὶ γαῖαν,

τέκνον ἐμόν, δείξω σοι, ὁπηνίκα δέρκομαι αὐτοῦ

ἴχνια καὶ χεῖρα στιβαρὴν κρατεροῖο θεοῖο.

αὐτὸν δ’ οὐχ ὁρόω· περὶ γὰρ νέφος ἐστήρικται (20)

λοιπὸν ἐμοί· ‘στᾶσιν δὲ δεκάπτυχον ἀνθρώποισιν.

οὐ γάρ κέν τις ἴδοι θνητῶν μερόπων κραίνοντα,

εἰ μὴ μουνογενής τις ἀπορρὼξ φύλου ἄνωθεν

Χαλδαίων· ἴδρις γὰρ ἔην ἄστροιο πορείης

καὶ σφαίρης κίνημ’ ἀμφὶ χθόνα ὡς περιτέλλει  (25)

κυκλοτερές τ’ ἐν ἴσῳ, κατὰ δὲ σφέτερον κνώδακα.

πνεύματα δ’ ἡνιοχεῖ περί τ’ ἠέρα καὶ περὶ χεῦμα

νάματος· ἐκφαίνει δὲ πυρὸς σέλας ἰφιγενήτου.

αὐτὸς δὴ μέγαν αὖθις ἐπ’ οὐρανὸν ἐστήρικται

χρυσέῳ εἰνὶ θρόνῳ· γαίη δ’ ὑπὸ ποσσὶ βέβηκε· (30)

χεῖρα δὲ δεξιτερὴν ἐπὶ τέρμασιν ᾿Ωκεανοῖο

ἐκτέτακεν· ὀρέων δὲ τρέμει βάσις ἔνδοθι θυμῷ

οὐδὲ φέρειν δύναται κρατερὸν μένος. ἔστι δὲ πάντως

αὐτὸς ἐπουράνιος καὶ ἐπὶ χθονὶ πάντα τελευτᾷ,

ἀρχὴν αὐτὸς ἔχων καὶ μέσσην ἠδὲ τελευτήν, (35)

ὡς λόγος ἀρχαίων, ὡς ὑδογενὴς διέταξεν,

ἐκ θεόθεν γνώμῃσι λαβὼν κατὰ δίπλακα θεσμόν.

ἄλλως οὐ θεμιτὸν δὲ λέγειν· τρομέω δέ γε γυῖα,

ἐν νόῳ· ἐξ ὑπάτου κραίνει περὶ πάντ’ ἐνὶ τάξει.

ὦ τέκνον, σὺ δὲ τοῖσι νόοισι πελάζευ, γλώσσης (40)

εὖ μάλ’ ἐπικρατέων, στέρνοισι δὲ ἔνθεο φήμην.

‘For we must understand the voice of God not as spoken words, but as construction works, just as Moses in our Law has spoken of the whole creation of the world as words of God. For throughout he says of each work, “And God said, and it was so.” It seems to me that he has been very carefully followed in all by Pythagoras, and Socrates, and Plato, who said that they heard the voice of God, when they were contemplating the arrangement of the universe so accurately made and indissolubly combined by God. Moreover, Orpheus, in verses taken from his writings in the Sacred Account, thus sets forth the doctrine that all things are governed by divine power, and that they have had a beginning, and that God is over all. And this is what he says:

“I speak to those who lawfully may hear: / Depart, and close the doors, all ye profane, / Who hate the ordinances of the just, / The law divine announced for all alike. / But you, Musaeus, child of the bright Moon, / Lend me thine ear; for I have truths to tell. / Let not the former fancies of thy mind / Deprive you of the dear and blessed life. / Look to the word divine, keep close to that, / And guide thereby the deep thoughts of your heart / Walk wisely in the way, and look to none, / Save to the immortal Framer of the world: / For thus of Him an ancient story speaks: / One, perfect in Himself, all else by Him / Made perfect: ever present in His works, / By mortal eyes unseen, by mind alone / Discerned. It is not He that out of good / Makes evil to spring up for mortal men. / Both love and hatred wait upon His steps, / And war and pestilence, and sorrow and tears: / For there is none but He. All other things / ‘Twere easy to behold, could’st thou but first / Behold Himself here present upon earth. / The footsteps and the mighty hand of God / Whene’er I see, I’ll show them thee, my son: / But Him I cannot see, so dense a cloud / In tenfold darkness wraps our feeble sight. / Him in His power no mortal could behold, / Save one, a scion of Chaldaean race: / For he was skilled to mark the sun’s bright path, / And how in even circle round the earth / The starry sphere on its own axis turns, / And winds their chariot guide o’er sea and sky; / And showed where fire’s bright flame its strength displayed. / But God Himself, high above heaven unmoved, / Sits on His golden throne, and plants His feet / On the broad earth; His right hand He extends / O’er Ocean’s farthest bound; the eternal hills / Tremble in their deep heart, nor can endure / His mighty power. And still above the heavens / Alone He sits, and governs all on earth, / Himself first cause, and means, and end of all. / So men of old, so tells the Nile-born sage, / Taught by the twofold tablet of God’s law; / Nor otherwise dare I of Him to speak: / In heart and limbs I tremble at the thought, / How He from heaven all things in order rules. / Draw near in thought, my son; but guard thy tongue / With care, and store this doctrine in thine heart.”

8. Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.77-93, 11.1-5, 15-28

Esse deos Erebi crudeles questus, in altam

se recipit Rhodopen pulsumque aquilonibus Haemum.

Tertius aequoreis inclusum piscibus annum

finierat Titan, omnemque refugerat Orpheus               80

femineam venerem, seu quod male cesserat illi,

sive fidem dederat. Multas tamen ardor habebat

iungere se vati, multae doluere repulsae.

Ille etiam Thracum populis fuit auctor amorem

in teneros transferre mares citraque iuventam

aetatis breve ver et primos carpere flores.

Collis erat collemque super planissima campi

area, quam viridem faciebant graminis herbae.

Umbra loco deerat: qua postquam parte resedit

dis genitus vates et fila sonantia movit, 90

umbra loco venit. Non Chaonis afuit arbor.

non nemus Heliadum, non frondibus aesculus altis,

nec tiliae molles, nec fagus et innuba laurus,….[catalog of trees]

11.1: Carmine dum tali silvas animosque ferarum

Threicius vates et saxa sequentia ducit,

ecce nurus Ciconum, tectae lymphata ferinis

pectora velleribus, tumuli de vertice cernunt

Orphea percussis sociantem carmina nervis…..                        5

Cunctaque tela forent cantu mollita, sed ingens                       15

clamor et infracto Berecyntia tibia cornu

tympanaque et plausus et Bacchei ululatus

obstrepuere sono citharae: tum denique saxa

non exauditi rubuerunt sanguine vatis.

Ac primum attonitas etiamnum voce canentis              20

innumeras volucres anguesque agmenque ferarum

Maenades, Orphei titulum, rapuere, theatri.

Inde cruentatis vertuntur in Orphea dextris

et coeunt ut aves, si quando luce vagantem

noctis avem cernunt. Structoque utrimque theatro       25

ceu matutina cervus periturus harena

praeda canum est, vatemque petunt et fronde virentes

coniciunt thyrsos non haec in munera factos.

9.Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen ch. 1 (2nd cent. CE)

“Amphion of Thebes and Arion of Methymna were both minstrels, and both were renowned in story. They are celebrated in song to this day in the chorus of the Greeks; the one for having allured the fishes, and the other for having surrounded Thebes with walls by the power of music. Another, a Thracian, a cunning master of his art (he also is the subject of a Hellenic legend), tamed the wild beasts by the mere might of song; and transplanted trees-oaks-by music…..

To me, therefore, that Thracian Orpheus, that Theban, and that Methymnaean,-men, and yet unworthy of the name,-seem to have been deceivers, who, under the pretence of poetry corrupting human life, possessed by a spirit of artful sorcery for purposes of destruction, celebrating crimes in their orgies, and making human woes the materials of religious worship, were the first to entice men to idols; nay, to build up the stupidity of the nations with blocks of wood and stone,-that is, statues and images,-subjecting to the yoke of extremest bondage the truly noble freedom of those who lived as free citizens under heaven by their songs and incantations. But not such is my song, which has come to loose, and that speedily, the bitter bondage of tyrannizing demons; and leading us back to the mild and loving yoke of piety, recalls to heaven those that had been cast prostrate to the earth. It alone has tamed men, the most intractable of animals; the frivolous among them answering to the fowls of the air, deceivers to reptiles, [etc.]….. And so all such most savage beasts, and all such blocks of stone, the celestial song has transformed into tractable men. [….] Behold the might of the new song! It has made men out of stones, men out of beasts. Those, moreover, that were as dead, not being partakers of the true life, have come to life again, simply by becoming listeners to this song. It also composed the universe into melodious order, and tuned the discord of the elements to harmonious arrangement, so that the whole world might become harmony. It let loose the fluid ocean, and yet has prevented it from encroaching on the land….The violence of fire it has softened by the atmosphere, as the Dorian is blended with the Lydian strain; and the harsh cold of the air it has moderated by the embrace of fire, harmoniously arranging these the extreme tones of the universe. And this deathless strain,-the support of the whole and the harmony of all,-reaching from the centre to the circumference, and from the extremities to the central part, has harmonized this universal frame of things, not according to the Thracian music, which is like that invented by Jubal, but according to the paternal counsel of God, which fired the zeal of David. And He who is of David, and yet before him, the Word of God, despising the lyre and harp, which are but lifeless instruments, and having tuned by the Holy Spirit the universe, and especially man,-who, composed of body and soul, is a universe in miniature, makes melody to God on this instrument of many tones…”

10. Eusebius, Praise of Constantine (4th cent. CE)

Thus, I say, did our common Saviour prove himself the benefactor and preserver of all, displaying his wisdom through the instrumentality of his human nature, even as a musician uses the lyre to evince his skill. The Grecian myth tells us that Orpheus had power to charm ferocious beasts, and tame their savage spirit, by striking the chords of his instrument with a master hand: and this story is celebrated by the Greeks, and generally believed, that an unconscious instrument could subdue the untamed brute, and draw the trees from their places, in obedience to its melodious power. But he who is the author of perfect harmony, the all-wise Word of God, desiring to apply every remedy to the manifold diseases of the souls of men, employed that human nature which is the workmanship of his own wisdom, as an instrument by the melodious strains of which he soothed, not indeed the brute creation, but savages endued with reason; healing each furious temper, each fierce and angry passion of the soul, both in civilized and barbarous nations, by the remedial power of his Divine doctrine.

11. The Ruin (Anglo-Saxon, 8th cent.)

Wrætlic is þes wealstan,         wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston,         brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene,         hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen,         hrim on lime, 5

scearde scurbeorge         scorene, gedrorene,
ældo undereotone.         Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan         forweorone, geleorene, […]

Beorht wæron burgræced,         burnsele monige, 21
heah horngestreon,         heresweg micel,
meodoheall monig         mondreama full,
oþþæt þæt onwende         wyrd seo swiþe.[…]

Wondrous is this stonewall, wrecked by fates;

town building fallen, broken work of giants.

Roofs are in ruins, towers tumbled,

barred gate plundered, frost in the mortar,

storm-covers gaping, torn, collapsing,

undermined by age. Earth’s grip holds

masterbuilders, perished, departed.[…]

Bright was the townhall, bathhouses many,

plenty of high gables, great noise of battle,

many the meadhalls, full of men’s revels,

till that was changed by fate the mighty.[…]

The place falls to ruin, shattered into

mounds of stone, where once many a man,

joyous and gold-bright, dressed in splendor,

proud and flushed with wine, gleamed in armor;

he gazed on his treasure-silver, precious stones,

jewelry and wealth, all that he owned-

and on this bright city in the broad kingdom.

12. Boethius (475-524), Consolation of Philosophy (3.m.12:5-16)

quondam funera coniugis / vates Threicius gemens

postquam flebilibus modis / silvas currere mobiles,

amnes stare coegerat / iunxitque intrepidum latus

saevis cerva leonibus / nec visum timuit lepus

iam cantu placidum canem, / cum flagrantior intima

fervor pectoris ureret

Once, having buried his wife / the Thracian singer lamenting

made with his sad strains / woodland trees run free

and streams stand still, / a stag unfrightened lay down

beside ferocious lions, / a hare wasn’t scared to see

a hound now calmed by song. / While deep inside his heart

distress raged all the fiercer-

13. King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Consolation of Philosophy (late 9th cent. CE)

“It happened long ago that there was a harper in the nation known as Thrace, which was in Greek dominion. This harper was so good it was unheard of; his name was Orpheus. He had a very fine wife, who was called Eurydice. It began to be said that the harper could harp so that the woods moved, and the stones moved at the sound, and wild deer would run to him and stand as though tamed, so still that even if men or hounds came to him, they were not frightened by them. Then they said that the harper’s wife must die and her soul be led to hell.The harper became so sad that he could not live among other men, but took to the woods and sat on the mountain day and night; he wept and harped so that the woods trembled and rivers stood still, and hart did not shun lion, nor hare the hound, nor did any animal feel rage or fear at another for the song’s mirth. Then the harper thought that nothing in this world could bring him joy; he thought he would seek hell’s gods, and try to win them with his harp and bid them to give back his wife. Then he came there….”

email: matfox@princeton. Corrections, comments and correspondence welcome

*************************Select Bibliography

Burkert, Walter. 1985. Greek religion. Cambridge: Harvard University

Press. pp. 290-304.

Detienne, Marcel. 2002. The writing of Orpheus. Baltimore: Johns

Hopkins University Press.

Freiert, William K. 1991. “Orpheus: a fugue on the polis.” In Pozzi, Dora and John

Wickersham. Myth and the polis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 32-48.

Friedman, John Block. 1970. Orpheus in the middle ages. Cambridge:

Harvard University Press.

Harrison, R.M. 1962. “An Orpheus mosaic at Ptolemais in Cyrenaica.”

JRS 52: 13-18.

Jesnick, Ilona Julia. 1997. The image of Orpheus in Roman  mosaic.Oxford: Archaeopress.

Laks, A. and G. W. Most (eds.). 1997. Studies on the Derveni

Papyrus. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

West, M.L. 1983. The Orphic poems. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


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