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Category Archives: Traditions

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The Bacchae: the Morals of Murderous Women

by January 5, 2020

If I invited you to a bacchanalia what would you expect? Wine? Dancing? Sex? Of course you would. How about harmonizing with nature? Mass hallucination? Violence? Carpaccio? You’re beginning to think you should call and cancel, aren’t you?
Well don’t worry, it might not be as wild as you think. Then again, it might be much worse. The ancient Athenians, like you and I, did not seem to have a crystal clear idea of what constituted a bacchanalia.
This reason for this is simple – it was a secret. Well, a mystery to be precise.
The shroud of secrecy that hung over these proceedings is appropriately reflected in Euripides’ The Bacchae. Appropriate because, despite a straightforward plot, The Bacchae is probably the least easy of Euripides‘ extant plays to analyse. Written in Macedon and performed posthumously in Athens, the story is simple:
The Women in the bacchae
Pentheus, the king of Thebes, had banned all worship of his cousin Dionysus. Dionysus decided to wreak revenge. He sent the women of the city mad with devotion and forced them out into the glens of Mount Cithaeron. These women were his ‘Bacchae’. Pentheus wanted to arrest all the Bacchae and execute the ‘effeminate foreigner’ (Dionysus in disguise) who was exciting them. Dionysus was arrested, he escaped, and then escorted a brainwashed (and transvestitized) Pentheus into the countryside to watch the sexual exploits of the Bacchae.
Far from getting his free peep show, Pentheus was torn limb from limb by the revellers led by his crazed mother, Agave. Agave brought the head of Pentheus back to the city and everyone agreed that it had been a mistake to disrespect Dionysus.
So where lies the problem? Well, it lies in the message. Quite simply, there isn’t a great deal of consensus as to what it was.
A lot has been made of the conspicuous absence of sex in the behavior and dialogue of Dionysus. It is Pentheus who seems obsessed with this element of the dionysiac experience. And indeed, it is this obsession that leads to his death. Before the opportunity to spy on the worshippers arises, Pentheus, though in the wrong, is strong and steadfast in his opposition to Dionysus.
Pentheus

Death of Pentheus

However, Pentheus is actually dionysiac by nature – as, of course, his blood would dictate. Failure to repress, or fully submit to this leads first to the loss of his authority and, ultimately, to the loss of his life.
What this treatment of the sexual element means is unclear. Was Euripides trying to convey that the worship of Dionysus was more than merely about sex? Was he pointing out that the reputation of the mystery cult in Macedon was different to that in Athens?
Another theory is that the play is a deathbed repentance of a man recanting all his years of blasphemy.
However, this is hard to believe as Dionysus is portrayed as a creature of horror, violence and cruelty. Not content with justice, but desirous to carry out torture and humiliation.
We witness this when the citizens of Thebes see their addled king being marched through the streets, emasculated in women’s garb. On his return both the clothes, and the body they covered, have gone. All that is left is a severed head clutched in the hands of his frenzied mother.
Whilst there is a call for piety, it feels more borne of pragmatism rather than of true belief. Cadmus, grandfather of Pentheus and Dionysus, states: “Mortals must not make light of gods – I would never do so”.
His words are given extra weight as he, along with Teiresias, are the only noble and wise characters in the play. He continues with a criticism: “Dionysus, god of joy, has been just, but too cruel”. Whilst the Chorus chime in with: “Cadmus I grieve for you. Your grandson suffered justly, but you most cruelly”.
The emphasis is not on hubris or blasphemy, but on the folly of upsetting a powerful enemy. This is tantamount to the willful abandonment of wisdom, something which many believed was at the root of key social and political problems in Athens.
Dionysus
Dionysus himself explicitly states: “If you all had chosen wisdom, when you would not, you would have found the son of Zeus your friend”. This is perhaps the most convincing of the possible messages. Not least because it is consistent with the lifelong views of Euripides.
This play was written far away from the war-obsessed, bereaved, bankrupt and exhausted world of Athens, at a time when the Peloponnesian War was in the process of being lost.
Whether Euripides was a bitter exile or a content expatriate we cannot know, but his distance, together with his advanced age, may have given him greater urgency and freedom.
So, was the play a warning to the city?
A warning to be pious seems disingenuous, but perhaps that is what it was. Regardless of his religious beliefs, Euripides knew most Athenians exhibited signs of true belief. Is he, therefore, using religion to manipulate the believers? In doing so, trying to highlight the folly of war, trying to bring an end to the carnage?

Bust of Euripides

It is unusual to have a god, a true god – not a Heracles figure, dominate the action. Tragedy is filled with gods, but they are usually behind the scenes, pulling the strings, causing or resolving problems out of mortal control.
Religion and violence are clearly important aspects of The Bacchae. However, it is difficult to understand if the former is being used to explain, excuse, or warn against the latter. We certainly see extreme and brutal violence in Pentheus’ punishment. Also, he says he wants to ‘hunt’ the Maenads (the female followers of Dionysus) and has desires to execute the effeminate foreigner by stoning, hanging or beheading.
As Teiresias puts it: “Come Pentheus, listen to me. You rely on force; but it is not force that governs human affairs”.
Is Euripides emphasizing peace, piety or wisdom? Some traditional commentators consider the three interchangeable, each impossible to achieve without the others.
Something we must bear in mind is that Euripides knows he won’t be around much longer. He’ll no longer be there to tell people how to think, to point out the error of their ways. If he can persuade his estranged countrymen to think for themselves, to think logically, calmly and peacefully, then perhaps he can die with some hope for Athens.
Teiresias

Prophet Teiresias

More superficially, there is the idea that Euripides thinks Athenians are simply taking life too seriously. The fifth century is a time of serious thought, of democracy, logic, laws, expansion and building. Perhaps Euripides, reflecting from his position of remote tranquillity, thinks everyone should be a bit more dionysiac, should do what feels good.
We again turn to Teiresias for support: “Men have but to take their fill of wine and the sufferings of an unhappy race are banished…This is our only cure for the weariness of life”.
Or simply, sadly and quite subtly, the play might be an introspective look at the life of a lonely exile, a man who misses the acropolis and agora of Athens. Cadmus could easily have been our playwright in disguise: “What utter misery and horror has overtaken us all…in my old age I must leave my home and travel to strange lands”.
You may see this play as a belated adoption of religion, a drive for peace, the plea of an educated man desperate for his fellow citizens to think, the lament of a heartbroken exile who misses his homeland, or simply an encouragement for us too to dance, drink and be merry. Whichever way, hopefully the overriding conclusion drawn from The Bacchae is that this is a truly fascinating piece of theatre from the mind of an undeniably extraordinary individual.
Interested in reading the twisted tale of The Bacchae by Euripides? You can access it here for Free: https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/Bacchae/
The Bacchae: the Morals of Murderous Women” was written by Ben Potter

Christmas: Its Origins in Ancient Greece and Rome

by December 24, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The modern world owes so much to the Greeks and the Romans, they influenced how we live and our society in so many ways. For instance, now we think that Christmas is a very Christian festival, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, but in fact, the holiday was greatly influenced by the pagan Greeks and Romans… in more ways than one.
A Greek icon of the Nativity

A Greek icon of the Nativity

Ancient Greece and Christmas
Every society has religious festivals that are accompanied by feasting and celebrations. The Greeks were no different. The ancient Greeks regularly celebrated festivals in honor of the Olympian deities they worshipped. One of the most popular religious festivals was held for the god Dionysus, the Olympian god of wine, fertility, pleasure, festivity, delirium and frenzy. This god was something of a shapeshifter and he was often portrayed as either an old man or an effeminate youth. This ability meant that he was also the god of drama and the theatre. He was a very popular god with the ordinary people and so every year they held a celebration in honor of the god of wine on December 25th or the 30th.
Like Jesus, Dionysus was born to a Virgin, regarded as a redeemer god by many, and the festival in his honor was related to the birth of the winter sun. His birthday was marked with feasting and possible present giving. There were many hymns to Dionysus sung at this time, mainly by choirs of children, which is rather similar to modern Christmas carols.
Dionysus

the Self-Portrait as Bacchus, is an early self-portrait by the Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, dated between 1593 and 1594.

While the birthday of Dionysus has very many similarities with the celebrations around the birth of Jesus Christ, some scholars believe that The Kronia, an Athenian festival held in honor of Kronos and was noted for its feasting, was also one of the inspirations for the Christian festival.
Ancient Rome and Christmas
Christianity started as a sect within Judaism, but changed radically over the centuries. Despite persecution, it was able to flourish within the Roman Empire. The Christians were often loud in their condemnations of the Romans as sinful, but in fact, they were also greatly influenced by them. It is widely agreed that the Roman festival of the Saturnalia was highly influential in the development of the Christian holiday of Christmas.

Early Christians

Saturnalia was held in honor of the god Saturn, the god of agriculture, wealth and plenty, and this celebration ran from the 17th of December through to 23 December, as corresponds to the modern calendar. This festival was marked by sacrifices to the god and a lavish public party. It is possible that at one time there were human sacrifices to the Saturn, but these were later replaced by effigies of human figures. There was also a lot of gift-giving between neighbors and family members.
Partying and public drunkenness during the festival was common and everyday social norms were overturned. Indeed, the traditional hierarchy itself was subverted. Slaves were served by their masters and the ordinary people took great liberties. There was a great deal of promiscuity and it is alleged that women could sleep with whomever they wish. Moreover, many things that were illegal during the rest of the year were tolerated during the Saturnalia, such as gambling. Once the festival was over, however, Roman society returned to the traditional social norms.
Saturnalia

A painting of the Saturnalia from the 19th century

Christianity and the Saturnalia
The Christians naturally hated the festival that was held in honor of the Roman Pantheon’s King of the Gods because they viewed them as promoting immorality and sin. The festival was denounced by many Christian apologists and saints, but nevertheless, Saturnalia was very popular, not only in Rome but throughout the Roman Empire. Over time Christians decided to adopt Saturnalia because they knew that it was so popular with the people that they could not simply ban it.
Meanwhile, the exact birth of Jesus Christ is not known and it is not mentioned in the Bible. December the 25th was selected by the Early Church in order to associate the birth of the Christian redeemer with Saturnalia. It was the Christian leadership’s attempt to Christianized Saturnalia and her Roman celebrants and to a large extent, they were successful. However, people continued to celebrate Saturnalia and the birthday of Jesus at the same time for many years.

Roman gamblers from a mosaic

Over time the Christian Church was able to completely Christianize the pagan festival. However, elements of Saturnalia remained, as seen by the tradition of the Lord of Misrule in many European countries. This was a time when the social norms were suspended and outrageous behavior was acceptable, just as in the time of Saturnalia.
Whether it was to honor Dionysus, Kronos or Saturn, the Greek and Roman traditions live on in our modern Christmas celebrations, and that’s something to remember at your next Christmas party…
References

A Toast To The Ancients

by August 30, 2019

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Wining and dining — and philosophizing — is the way the Ancients celebrated life. In fact, wine was a cultural staple for the ancient Greeks. Considering that their civilization is the foundation for much of western civilization, wine becomes an important part of our collective heritage.
Archaeological digs that have unearthed extravagant, presumably once wine-toting goblets dating as far back as the Mycenaean era of Greece. Such artifacts included gold and silver goblets that demonstrated that the people of the Mycenaean era were not only fierce warriors, but also people of sophistication who were aware of wine and respected it greatly.
Vase illustration of Greek drinking

Ancient Greek Symposium

One artifact of particular interest is the Cup of Nestor. This Golden goblet was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 in the ancient civilization of Mycenae. It is believed to have belonged to the ancient king Nestor of Pylos, who was a prominent character in The Iliad.
Homer describes the goblet of Nestor as follows:
“There were four handles on it, around each one a pair of golden doves was feeding. Below were two supports. When that cup was full, another man could hardly lift it from the table, but, old as he was, Nestor picked it up with ease.” — The Iliad
Nestor's Cup

The Cup of Nestor or dove cup is a gold goblet discovered in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann in Shaft IV of Grave Circle A, Mycenae.

It is commonly held that large scale production, distribution, and consumption of wine began on the prominent island of Crete. Depictions of primitive wine presses can be seen on the walls of Minoan tombs dating as far back to 3000 BCE. Clay goblets and carafes have been uncovered across the island, including in the ancient palace of King Minos in the city of Knossos.
It is believed the craft of wine making began on this island and slowly made the transfer to the mainland of Greece. The ancient Greeks traded wine as a commercial product for centuries across their regions.
Indeed, Greek wine was traded throughout the entire known ancient world. Wines from islands such as Crete, Rhodes, and Lesvos were especially popular. Homer himself writes about the wonderful supply of wine found in cellars outside the city of Troy. The Aegean was so saturated with wine trading ships that Homer would refer to it as “the wine-dark sea”.
Wine dark sea

Were the wine-dark seas from wine?

In order to accommodate high demand, the ancients developed new wine storage techniques that enabled it to be transported long distances without spoiling. Before the time of air-tight glass bottles, wine left in a regular barrel would be exposed to oxygen and spoil quickly.
The ancient Greeks began the practice of sealing these wine barrels with pine resin to prevent it from spoiling. The resin helped make the barrels air-tight while simultaneously adding a distinct pine aroma to the drink.
This distinctive taste is still alive today in the form of “Restina”, a modern white wine that emulates the flavor of ancient times.
Restina

Restina… not everyone’s cup of wine…

An interesting anecdote claims the use of pine resin was for a very different reason. According to this theory, Roman soldiers would regularly plunder the cities of Greece and make off with their stores of wine. The Greek citizens became so angry that they began using pine resin to add a bitter aroma to their wine. The Roman invaders would try one sip of this distinctive wine, taste the bitterness and assume it was spoiled.
In this way the Greeks would keep their wines and the invaders would be none the wiser. This idea would seem to lead to the thought that the Greeks would take measures to protect their wines while the invaders would make off with their women and treasures. At least they had their priorities straight…??
Wine in ancient Greece was of enormous cultural significance. The ancients drank wine to praise the gods and expand their minds. They studied it intently to decipher it’s presumed health benefits and risks.
It was a nutritional staple, a religious experience: indeed, the production, distribution, and consumption of wine is so deeply ingrained with the culture of ancient Greece, that you simply can not have one without the other.

The Brutality of Citizen Wives

by July 24, 2019

By Mary E. Naples, M.A.
Thesmophoria, the feminine fertility festival, dedicated to the Goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, was literally for women only. Citizen males of ancient Greece were unconditionally restricted from attending any portion of the three-day long event, though they were responsible for its expenses. Further, men who spied on, or interrupted, the Thesmophoria were subject to life threatening and disfiguring acts of violence perpetrated by the Thesmophorians themselves.
Ancient Greek women illustration

Various Ancient Greek costumes; right to left – One female flute player and the rest are women’s everyday costumes. Date: circa 500 BC

There are some noteworthy examples demonstrating this extensive retribution, straight from ancient sources.
First there is the lore that the hapless King Battos of Cyrene—famed for founding Cyrene—was cruelly castrated by the furious disciples for surreptitiously observing their sacred and secret rites.
Then there is the tale related by Pausanias (110 CE- 180 CE) of the legendary Messenian hero Aristomenes, who was celebrated for his victories with the Spartans. He unfortunately captured the female disciples in the midst of their clandestine celebration, only to be “knocked senseless” by their sacrificial knives and spits.
Painting of Aristomenes

A girl saves Aristomenes by Franc Kavčič

Next, there is the legend of unlucky Militiades, who, while in battle to secure the island of Paros, leapt over the wall leading to the Thesmophorian shrine. Once there, he was so overcome with terror that in jumping back over the wall he sprained his thigh, from which he developed gangrene and later died. Herodotus (484 BCE- 425 BCE) recounts this as an admonishment, and warms that this mournful outcome was due to his breaching the sacred sanctuary of Demeter Thesmophoros.
Then we have Plutarch’s (46 CE- 120 CE) narrative of Pesistratus (562 BCE -527 BCE), the tyrant of Athens, and the Athenian statesman Solon (638 BCE-558 BCE). They pulled a trick on the Thesmophorians celebrating in Megara by enlisting two beardless men to impersonate the disciples.
Illustration of Athenian tyrant

Illustration from 1838 by M. A. Barth depicting the return of Peisistratos to Athens, accompanied by a woman disguised as Athena, as described by the Greek historian Herodotus

Once discovered, the Thesmophorians brutally attacked the wretched mimics.
Finally there is Aristophanes’ comedic satire Thesmophoriazusae or “Women of the Thesmophoria.” In it Aristophanes casts his colleague Euripides as the character for whom the Thesmophorians want revenge.
“Today at the Thesmophoria the women are going to liquidate me, because I slander them,” cries Euripides.
The premise is that the rebellious disciples seek to kill Euripides for characterizing women in his plays as villainous. While the women are mocked in terms of their democratic assembly and their ritual, Aristophanes’ depiction of the Thesmophorians as uncontrollable and violent is in keeping with the androcentric mindset towards the festival.
vase painting of play

Apulian krater with scene from Thesmophoriazusae, c. 370 BC

The brutality of these stories demonstrates that men’s profound uneasiness with the Thesmophoria was in direct proportion to their wary respect for it. Though suspicious, pious citizen males could not obstruct it, as it was deemed both holy and integral to the health and well being of the polis. Indeed, the citizen males considered the Thesmophoria to be at once both threatening and reverential. Why else, but for the power to increase fertility, would the males in patriarchal ancient Greece comply with the wishes of the obviously inferior sex? In a society where men set the rules, the Thesmophoria turned the dominant paradigm on its head.
Kept from all activities in the public sphere, citizen wives were only granted a watered down citizenship, which simply allowed them to bear citizen males.
Disenfranchised from participating in the political life of the polis, women were similarly as powerless in any acts of societal sacrificial violence. For example, women usually had no access to instruments of sacrifice such as the all-important knife, kettle or the spit. However, archaeological and literary evidence suggests that full-grown sows, killed in a sacrificial manner employing a knife, were discovered at various Demeter sanctuaries throughout Attica.
Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone

Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone

Indeed, most scholars now concur that the Thesmophoria was unique in being one of the only feminine festivals where sacrifices were performed, meaning that the women of the Thesmophoria had rare access to the violent instruments of death.
Meeting outside the androcentric social constructs of family; the disciples were at liberty to become autonomous individuals without concerns for their family, as they once were in pre-patriarchal times. It also empowered a united feminine community without male restrictions—a possibly dangerous and subversive combination for the dominant male culture of ancient Greece. Indeed, enfranchised men were afraid of the anger of the subjugated female. And they should have been – for the women at the Thesmophoria, independent and armed at their secret cult festival, were a force to be reckoned with.

Suicide: A Hero’s way out?

by June 26, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca by Domínguez Sánchez, Manuel

The debt we owe to the Ancients is almost impossible to measure. They gave the western world maths, theatre, wine, democracy, the Olympics, history, wine, libraries, roads, wine, philosophy, sanitation, universities, pizza and even wine (for a more comprehensive list see Monty Python’s Life of Brian).
We have much to thank our forebears for and a whole lifetime would not be long enough to fully comprehend the bounty they have bestowed upon us.
However, one area in which the teaching of antiquity is best left to the theoretical is the ultimate pro-life/pro-choice one… suicide.
The taking of one’s own life was not exclusively the refuge of the hopeless, the weak or the mentally unstable. Indeed, mors voluntaria (voluntary death) was not automatically laden with any negative connotation in the same way suicidium later came to be.

The Death of Dido, Joshua Reynolds, 1781

In fact, the latter term was not in general use until the 12th century AD, by which time its meaning had become bastardized. So much so, that if you mentioned suicidium to a Roman c.50 AD he would have presumed you were talking about killing pigs!
Etymology aside, the methods, malice or merits of suicide were still quite tricky concepts to clearly understand.
Defeat in battle, loss of (female) chastity, sickness, old-age and selflessness are documented reasons for ancients wishing to take the final, irreversible step.
“When arising from shame and dishonor, suicide was regarded as appropriate; self-sacrifice was admired; impulsive suicide was less esteemed than a calculated, rational act” (Miriam T. Griffin).
Death of Cleopatra

Roman painting from the House of Giuseppe II, Pompeii, early 1st century AD, most likely depicting Cleopatra VII, wearing her royal diadem, consuming poison in an act of suicide, while her son Caesarion, also wearing a royal diadem, stands behind her.

Slavish, plebeian or feminine ways of checking out, like jumping from a height, drowning or hanging, were totally reviled. If one wished to end it all in an heroic, manly fashion then the only way to do it was by using a weapon.
Therefore, the classic image of a disgraced or defeated Roman opening his veins in a hot bath (referenced in Godfather II) was not merely dramatic license on the part of Hollywood.
One downside of suicide (besides the obvious) in most modern, monotheistic societies was seemingly not relevant for the ancients, i.e. prohibited entry into the afterlife.
In Homer’s Odyssey we see the great Achilles standing shoulder to shoulder with Ajax – the wretched King of Salamis who took his own life at Troy.
Ajax suicide Vase

Exekias’s vase depicting the suicide of Ajax

However, his wretchedness was not simply ascribed to his suicide, but the unheroic causes of it. Ajax killed himself in a fit of pique – he didn’t seem to give a second thought to the fact that he was the Greek’s greatest living warrior and his selfish action could have lost them the Trojan War.
Conversely, Leonidas’ kamikaze mission in delaying the Persian army’s advance with only ‘300’ soldiers was seen as a noble and worthy act – a feat truly worth giving one’s life for.
Having said that, in general, the Greeks were not very pro-choice.
Aristotle, who considered the act a social injustice, stated that “taking one’s own life to avoid poverty or desire or pain is unmanly… or rather cowardly”.
Plato was slightly more ambiguous when he said that “what ought a man to suffer if he kills that which is most truly his own… if he takes his own life”? Going on to explain that “crimes against the state are crimes against the gods, and vice versa. When a man kills himself without good reason… he is committing a crime.” Though he does concede “intolerable shame” can justify the act.
Death of Socrates

Was Socrates’ death suicide?
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

A similar caveat is begrudgingly part of Epicurean doctrine – though in their instance, the case for life can be decided using a simple pleasure versus pain equation.
Socrates also had something to say on the topic… as one might expect from a man forced to commit suicide by a jury of his peers. He believed a man should not take his own life “until the god sends some compulsion upon him”.
Therefore, while we can see Leonidas as more of a martyr than a suicide victim, it’s safe to make the generalization that the Greeks distrusted, disliked or disapproved of suicide.
And so it was up to the Romans to give mors voluntaria a whiff of romanticism.
Indeed the mentality of Ajax, a mighty soldier shamed by the actions of inferior warriors, would have been much better understood by the proud and passionate Latins.
The civil war (that of Julius Caesar, Pompey, Brutus, Octavian/Augustus, Mark Antony and Cleopatra i.e. the setting for HBO’s Rome) produced no end of dramatic and heroic suicides.
Brutus killed himself after his eventual defeat to Octavian at Philippi, Cato refused to acknowledge that Caesar had the authority to pardon him and instead opted to disembowel himself, and Antony and Cleopatra famously fell to sword and asp respectively.
Painting of the death of Cato

Death of Cato, painting by Johann Carl Loth

Each of these ends exuded an aura of honorable defiance or heroism. This reflection was accentuated by Nero’s pitiful ‘suicide’ in 68 AD.
Trapped in a villa four miles outside Rome, realizing his end was nigh, the disgraced emperor headed for the most dignified exit left open to him. However, such was his poltroonery that he couldn’t go through with it himself, instead he ordered his secretary to perform the gruesome deed.
As a feeble cop-out, all we can really say is that ancient attitudes towards suicide were ambiguous. In one breath it could be venerated and in the next compared to murder.
Death of Nero. Smirnov V.S.

Death of Nero, By Smirnov V.S.

It took Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century AD for the ancient world to be euthanized of its uncertainty.
Soon it would become clear that the decision to end life was no longer in the hands of man, nor of the gods, but of God.
So, if you wanted to kill yourself in antiquity, it was much better to do it in pagan Rome than in Greece, as the former was more likely to bring you a reputation for valor. However, any type of mors voluntaria in Christian Rome was likely to cause many more problems than it solved.
Perhaps it’s worth bearing in mind the words (rather than the deeds) of the Roman philosopher, Seneca: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage”.
In short… don’t kill yourself. And if you do, please don’t cite this article in your suicide note.

The Mysteries of The Orphics

by June 24, 2019

By John Mancini, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Orphism art

Orphic mosaics were found in many late-Roman villas

Of the many belief systems circulating in archaic Greece, Orphism was perhaps the most significant. The state-sanctioned religion of Hellenism may have intermingled with all aspects of daily life, but archaic Greece was also a mixture of superstitious magic and philosophical cults. There were rational beliefs such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, as well as sects with mystical tendencies like Pythagoreanism and later, Orphism, the adherents of which developed the Eleusinian Mystery Festivals, an annual celebration that captivated Athenians for nearly two thousand years.
Unlike the state-sanctioned rituals of Hellenism, of which it was a part, Orphism was guarded by educated elite. Those who followed Orphism were called Orphics, and they held their yearly mystery festival on the Eleusinian plains west of Athens in celebration of Demeter and Persephone – as well as their mysterious consort, Dionysus, who played a key role in this religion.
Votive of the Eleusisian Mysteries

Votive of the Eleusisian Mysteries

The Orphic religion, as well as their texts, was said to have been associated with the literature from the mythical poet, Orpheus. In the myth of Orpheus, his wife Eurydice suffers a fatal encounter with a snake. By journeying to the Underworld and composing a song that softens the heart of Hades, Orpheus is able to win his wife’s resurrection, but on one condition: he mustn’t turn back to look at her on his way out. Of course, he can’t resist one last look, and he immediately loses his love a second time. From then on, Orpheus can only recall Eurydice’s ghost through song.
There is an unhappy version of the Orpheus myth as told by Aeschylus in the fifth century B.C. Similar to the ending in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Aeschylus’ play describes Orpheus dismemberment by the Bassarai (the Bacchants in Ovid). However, his head goes on singing and makes its way across the sea to Lesbos where it is venerated by Apollo.
orpheus

orpheus

Orpheus’ death in this myth as well as in the Metamorphosis can be seen as an allegory for peaceful societies inevitably succumbing to barbarism. Ovid claims that Dionysus punished the Bacchants for killing Orpheus, but in contrast, Aeschylus’ play has Dionysus sending the Bassarai to punish Orpheus for not paying him tribute. This is an interesting distinction that differentiates Orphism from earlier orgiastic cults. The Orphics were enemies of the orgiastic praise of early Dionysian rituals – and the fundamental point of the Orphic poems was the dismemberment of Dionysus at the hands of the Titans.
In the Orphic verses Dionysus is Zagreus, son of Persephone and Hades/Zeus. Hera convinces the Titans to tear him apart, but Zeus is able to save Dionysus’ heart, and he destroys the Titans with a lightning bolt. From their ashes man is born – hence man’s “Titanic” nature.
Egyptian myths exerted a lot of influence on Greek myths, especially during the 6th century when Greek merchants frequently visited the country. The Greeks would have been aware of the Egyptian Cult of the Dead, which influenced the Cult of Adonis and Dionysus, whose dismemberment at the hands of the Titans also mirrors the Egyptian myth of Osiris. In an ancient epic by Alcmaeonis, Dionysus-Zagreus is equated with the night, thunder and the earth. He is the “highest of all gods.” For Dionysus was originally a god of the Underworld. The Egyptians equated him with Pluto. In fact, Heraclitus said that Hades and Dionysus were one and the same.
Dionysus

Dionysus

So while the cult of Dionysus, which originated in Egypt, was incorporated into the Orphic religion, it also lost some of its earlier vitality and impact. The central rite of Orphism was the animal sacrifice, a symbolic dismembering and eating of Dionysus. This rite is interpreted as a crime in the Orphic myths, in which the Titans are similarly demonized. Like mankind, the Bacchants are equated with the Titans, hence with the principle of evil, and their Dionysian frenzy was condemned by the Orphics.
The unhappy ending of the Orpheus myth is one of vengeance for turning the Maenads into criminals. Dionysus was a god of the Underworld, and Orpheus did not acknowledge him, but rather associated with Apollo-Helios, the sun god.
Orphism was built on old ideas, but the Orphics systematized these ideas in a practical way, creating an organized religion that was powerfully influential, especially to Christian Gnosticism with its emphasis on love.
Orphic Tablet

Gold orphic tablet and case found in Petelia, southern Italy (British Museum)

Orphism’s insistence on freeing the soul from physical bondage was also borrowed by Christianity, and in Orphism we can also find an origin of religious guilt and its resolution through purification rituals conducted by an elite few who claimed they could save people’s souls – which probably influenced other similar religious priesthoods that came later.
Plato may have thought the Orphics were swindlers, but they were very influential. The Orphics’ ultimate triumph was the concretizing of heaven and hell – of delineating good and evil and putting the work of preparing the human soul for death into a fantastically detailed religious practice.