Orpheus & History
Orpheus & History

Blue_Diamond02F7.gif (991 bytes)ORPHIC
This Page
Mystery Cult
Ovid Quotes
Balkan Birthplace
Rhodope, Bulgaria
Perperikon, Bulgaria
Birth of Opera
Christian Adoption
Jason and the Argonauts
Blue_Diamond02F7.gif (991 bytes)Still More
Orpheus home page
Orpheus & the sexes
Orpheus & Eurydice
Kukeri Myth & Mystery
Birth of the Masks
Pernik, Bulgaria-Carnival -Masquerade Games
Dionysus in Bulgaria-Images
Good Shepard
The Christians  catacombs did not use much of the myriad of pagan statues they had, but they did adapt Orpheus to represent Jesus as the Good Shepherd: "I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep knows me." [Gospel of John, Ch.10 ver.14 ]

David with harp and Phrygian cap detail from Gaza synagogue floor beginning at the sixth century.
Jewish or a Christian messianic figure was very common in the syncreistic milieu of late antiquity, and serves as but one example of the adoption by one cult of the pictorial symbolic language of another.

Ovid Quotations

Enhance and intensify one's vision of that synthesis of truth and beauty which is the highest and deepest reality.
First thing every morning before you arise say out loud, "I believe," three times.
Those things that nature denied to human sight, she revealed to the eyes of the soul.
Why should I go into details, we have nothing that is not perishable except what our hearts and our intellects endows us with.
Suppressed grief suffocates, it rages within the breast, and is forced to multiply its strength.
Gifts, believe me, captivate both men and Gods, Jupiter himself was won over and appeased by gifts.
It is annoying to be honest to no purpose.
Time is the devourer of all things.
We can learn even from our enemies.
It is convenient that there be gods, and, as it is convenient, let us believe there are.

Nothing is more powerful than custom or habit.

They come to see; they come that they themselves may be seen.

Ars Amatoria

There is more refreshment and stimulation in a nap, even of the briefest, than in all the alcohol ever distilled.
Chance is always powerful. Let your hook always be cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be fish.
At times it is folly to hasten at other times, to delay. The wise do everything in its proper time.
Endure and persist; this pain will turn to good by and by.
Had I not sinned what would there be for you to pardon. My fate has given you the opportunity for mercy.
 Happy are those who dare courageously to defend what they love.
Love is a driver, bitter and fierce if you fight and resist him, Easy-going enough once you acknowledge his power.
Love is full of anxious fears.
Love will enter cloaked in friendship's name.
Whether they give or refuse, it delights women just the same to have been asked.
Make the workmanship surpass the materials.
A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man's brow.
Everything comes gradually and at its appointed hour.
Men do not value a good deed unless it brings a reward.
Fair peace becomes men; ferocious anger belongs to beasts.
It is the mind that makes the man, and our vigour is in our immortal soul.
In our leisure we reveal what kind of people we are.
An evil life is a kind of death.
Time, motion and wine cause sleep.
Time is generally the best doctor.
Bulgaria & the Balkans: Land of Orpheus
In recent years, the claim of Orpheus as being at home in Greece by the Greek tourist authorities  resulted in an agreement to refer to his home as the Balkans which includes Bulgaria, Albania  Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Greece, Serbia & Montenegro and Turkey.
A reasonable accommodation considering ancient images of Orpheus generally picture him wearing Thracian style clothing and he rarely makes an appearance in the extensive collection of Greek artifacts available to us.

The myth of Orpheus, served as a storehouse of mythological data, the hymns and Orphic poetry  containing a wide range of mythological thinking which was recited in mystery-rites and purification rituals. There is little know about the original Thracian "Orphic Mysteries", rituals but through history Orpheus is a god of love and death whose adherents valued esoteric knowledge and an ascetic life as a path for their soul to achieve a higher level in the next life. Orpheus, although known as a priest of both Apollo and Dionysus, was not particularly popular with the Greeks, whose  preference for the Dionysian carnavals of rebirth and wine to the stories of afterlife and remonstrations against sin is aptly demonstrated by the abundance of art stilling surviving more than a great age later. The Greek initiations, [Elysian,  which featured a guided path into the archetypal world of the collective conscious we

The cult of Dionysus was more simple, primitive, elemental, spontaneous, and emotional. That of Orpheus was more elaborate, developed, controlled, and intellectualistic. Still, when all is said, the two systems had much in common. Both centered in the same god, Dionysus. Both aimed at the same goal, immortality through divinity. Both sought to attain that goal by prescribed rites and ceremonies. Both made a strictly individualistic appeal and were highly developed along the lines of personal experience. But Orphism fostered an ascetic rule of life that was the exact opposite of Dionysian license, and developed an elaborate theology of a highly speculative character. In brief, Orphism represented a reformed Dionysianism.

The name Orpheus does not occur in Homer or Hesiod, but he was known in the time of Ibycus (c. 530 BC). Pindar (522—442 BC) speaks of him as “the father of songs”. Aristophanes, Euripides, Plato, and Pindar, make up the  bulk of classical writing the Orphic mysteries There are also  references to Orphism from later pagan writers, Strabo, Pausanias, and Plutarch. Orphism was in active competition with Christianity during much of the time of the Roman Empire. 

According to a Late Antique summary of Aeschylus's lost play Bassarids, Orpheus at the end of his life disdained the worship of all gods save the sun, whom he called Apollo. One early morning he ascended Mount Pangaion (where Dionysus had an oracle) to salute his god at dawn, but was torn to death by Thracian Maenads for not honoring his previous patron, Dionysus. Here his death is analogous with the death of Dionysus, to whom therefore he functioned as both priest and avatar.

The Orphic first, and the Pythagorean later, believed in the transmigration of souls from body to body. On leaving the corpse at death, the soul was normally doomed to inhabit the bodies of other men or of animals even, passing on through a chain of physical existences until finally purified. An Orphic fragment preserved by Proclus reads: "Therefore the soul of man changing in the cycles of time enters into various creatures; now it enters a horse, again it becomes a sheep . . . . or as one of the tribe of chill serpents creeps on the sacred ground." Reincarnation, like dualism, was an important item in Orphic theology.


moral transfiguration leads to future immortality

Only those who "thrice had been courageous in keeping their souls pure from all deeds of wrong" could pass by the highway of Zeus into the tower of Cronus where the ocean breezes blow around the Islands of the Blest." In Plato the series of three incarnations was magnified to three periods of a thousand years each, during which the process of purgation might be completed

The technical Orphic expression for the transmigration of souls and their reappearance in human bodies was "rebirth" (palingenesia). These physical rebirths, however, were what the Orphic least desired, and to escape this weary round of reincarnation was the goal of all his endeavor. According to Proclus, the salvation offered by this system was the freeing of the spirit from the wheel of physical rebirths. In his commentary on Plato's Timaeus, he said, "This is what those who are initiated by Orpheus to Dionysus and Kore pray that they may attain:

'To cease from the wheel and breathe again from ill.'"

The persistent representation of Orpheus in antiquity was that of a reformer of Dionysiac rites. Diodorus affirmed that "Orpheus being a man highly gifted by nature and highly trained above all others, made many modifications in the orgiastic rites; hence they call Orphic those rites that took their rise from Dionysus."

 "Purification is by means of cleansings, and baths and aspersions. A man must also keep himself from funerals and marriages and every kind of physical pollution, and abstain from all food that is dead or has been killed, and from mullet, and from the fish melanurus, and from eggs, and from animals that lay eggs, and from beans, and from the other things that are forbidden for those who accomplish the holy rites of initiation."

The Orphic, like the Pythagorean, lived a life of ceremonial cleanliness and holiness. By washing and aspersions, at once symbolic and sacramental in character, he sought to purge away the taint of his bodily nature, the "ancient woe" inherited from the Titans. In life the Orphic wore garments of pure white.

It is  difficult to trace the influence of Orphism as a distinct religious movement during the Hellenistic and later periods of Greek influence. One theory was his cult was rejuvenated following the introduction into Roman thought by Ovid's acclaimed publication of Metamorphoses, which may have been used as a school text. In Italy, the Pythagorean brotherhood, had flourished in the south since the beginning of the 6th century which would have made the Orphic creeds familiar among the learned. 



The Balkans:
The identity of the Balkans owes as much to its fragmented and often violent common history as to its mountainous geography. The region was perennially on the edge of great empires, its history dominated by wars, rebellions, invasions and clashes between empires, from the times of the Roman Empire to the latter-day Yugoslav wars. The area is also known as the Balkan peninsula as they are surrounded by the Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean, Marmara and Black seas from the southwest, south and southeast. The Balkan region was the first area of Europe to experience the arrival of farming cultures in the Neolithic era. The practices of growing grain and raising livestock arrived in the Balkans from the Fertile Crescent by way of Anatolia, and spread west and north into Pannonia and Central Europe.
Today the region's principal nationalities include Greeks (11.5 million, with about 11 millions of them being in Greece), Turks (9.2 million in the European part of Turkey), Serbs (8.5 million), Bulgarians (7 million), Albanians (6 million, with about 3.3 millions of them being in Albania), Croats (4.5 million), Bosniaks (2.4 million), Macedonian Slavs (1.4 million) and Montenegrins (0.265 million). If Romania and Slovenia are included, then also Romanians (26 million) and Slovenians (2 million). Practically all Balkan countries have a smaller or larger Roma (Gypsy) minority.
The musical abilities of the Thracian and Dacian tribes were noted in ancient Greek texts, and may be continued in the strong music and dance traditions of Bulgaria, Romania and Macedonia. Orpheus' music became integrated into ancient Greek culture and so into east Mediterranean culture.
The Rhodope Mountains : Birthplace of Orpheus
Orpheus is said to have come from the Rhodopes, a mountain range primarily in Bulgaria, is considered  one of the cradles of European civilization.  A place of extraordinary beauty,  the Rhodopes are one of the few mountain ranges in Europe where the brown bear and wolf still breeds. Old-growth forests are home to deer, elk, fox, wild goat, and other rare European species. In early spring you can see the pink petals of Silivriak (Heberlea rhodopaensis), the symbol of the Rhodopes, which has the unique quality of being able to spring back to life even after being pressed for years. Legend has it that the flower bloomed out of the blood of Orpheus after he was dismembered.[more at
carnaval.com/bulgaria ]
Perperikon: For more than a century, archaeologists searched for the famous temple where Dionysus had an oracle in the Holy Rhodope mountains.
Visit the Bulgarian City of Perperikoh to experience 6,000 years of history and art

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus gives an account of the march of Xerxes' immense army on Greece in 480 BC. As the huge invasion force was slowly making its way along the Aegean coast, many Thracian tribes sent envoys to pledge their allegiance to Xerxes. Only the Satrians [ aka Bessians], who inhabited the Rhodope, chose to ignore him: According to Herodotus "The Satrians however never yet became obedient to any man, so far as we know, but they remain up to my time still free, alone of all the Thracians. [...] These are they who possess the Oracle of Dionysus; which Oracle is on their most lofty mountains. Of the Satrians those who act as prophets of the temple are the Bessians."

Marcus Licinius Crassus, a Roman General in Augustus' service, in 29-28 BC, when he captured the famous Temple from the Bessians (Bessoi) and gave it to the Odrysae, a rival Thracian tribe. In 11 BC, a fierce war for the Temple broke out between the two tribes, in which the Bessians were led by the Oracle's High Priest

Only the highest ridge of the southern Rhodope can be seen from the Aegean coast. Beyond it, are the low, habitable middle and eastern ranges of the mountain which abound in archaeological remains from various ages. Among them, the holy city of Perperikon, the biggest megalith in Europe, is both a geographical and a historical landmark.
Here also is the likely ruins of a great temple complex which Perperikon and many archeologists believe is this temple of great magnitude .

Fall 2004
Spring 71
ISBN: 1-882670-27-2

Obscure Mystery Cult?
Gianfranco Salvatore (Spring 71) writes about the rarity of references to Orpheus the first over the first eight centuries of Greek literature. "barely a dozen poets who mention Orpheus-on the average of one every 75 years and the majority of them only hit at the details of his legend." He also point out that among the considerable collection of Attic ceramics there is only one depiction of Orpheus among the animals.
Thus lending credence to the Bulgarian hullabaloo over the prominent use of Orpheus by Greek tourism authorities
Orphism greatest triumph has been as an inspiration to artists and musicians who came after his time as a worshipped cult figure. There is little Greek art that features Orpheus from the Hellenic period and many Greek historians do not mention him in their discussion of the gods. There is a good possibility that the Orphic priests traced their lineage to the Pythagoreans priesthood who before the time of Socrates and Plato were mostly philosophers, mathematicians and geometricians with much to say about the transmigration of souls.
Plato himself speaks of them as a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would go about offering purifications to the rich, a clatter of books by Orpheus and Musaeus in tow (Republic 364c-d). Those who were especially devoted to these ritual and poems often practiced vegetarianism, abstention from sex, and refrained from eating eggs — which came to be known as the Orphikos bios, or "Orphic way of life". Plato did make use of Ophic ideas in his writing. In Cratylus, the Orphic idea of the body as a prison house of the soul (soma-sema) as well as Plato's acceptance of the Orphic view on the transmigration of souls
Aristophanes, who did not hesitate to poke fun at Orphism, paid a serious tribute to in The Frogs when the tragedian Aeschylus said of the poet Orpheus:
"He made known to us mystic rites, and to abstain from slaughter."
Certainly this last statement had reference to something more than mere abstinence from animal food. At the very least it meant that Orphic ritual laid stress on the necessity of purification from blood, and at most it meant that Orphism came with a gospel of abstention from murder and of peace on earth.
Jason & the Argonauts
When the great adventurer Jason was about to set out on his search for the Golden fleece, Orpheus was invited to go along. Orpheus proved to be of great help on the long journey. When the tempers of the heroes of the ship flared up, Orpheus would sing a peaceful song and calm those who had been arguing. Sometimes when the rowing was long and tedious, Orpheus would begin to stroke his lyre. Then time would seem to float by and the rowers would not feel tired and they listened to the soft rippling music.

The time came when Jason and the Argonauts had to sail past the dangerous isles of the Sirens,  three small, rocky islands called Sirenum scopuli. The Sirens were beautiful creature who were part human, part bird. Their songs were so wonderful that any person who heard them would become enchanted. All the sailors who heard the Sirens' songs would hurl themselves overboard and swim to the island of the Sirens'. Lured by these strange maidens the men would die upon the jagged rocks around the isle. But as the Argonauts came close to the rocky island of the Sirens, Orpheus began a splendid song of his own. The Sirens  and sang beautiful songs that enticed sailors to come to them. They then ate the sailors. When Orpheus heard their voices, he withdrew his lyre and played his music more beautifully than they, drowning out their music.Jason and this crew did not listen to the Sirens and were able to sail past the island unharmed.

While away with Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus' wife, Eurydice, was killed by
a snakebite.
According to Ovid, the sirens  were nymphs and the play-mates of Persephone. They were present when she was abducted and, because they did not interfere, Demeter changed them into birds with female faces (Ovid V, 551).
The Birth of Opera

begins with Orpheus

Something amazing happened 400 years ago in Renaissance Florence. At the turn of the 17th century, in one of Italy's greatest cultural centres, a group of intellectuals and musicians focused their creative powers on achieving the impossible: the resurrection of Greek tragedy. They failed, but in the process created what we know today as opera.
The first opera was performed in Florence at the Pitti Palace. The opera, was Euridice.
Learn more about this first opera here

In the year 1637 saw the opening, in Venice, of the first public opera house. No longer would musical theater be the exclusive domain of royalty and the court: now anyone with the price of admission could attend.
Singers and other artistic talent were immediately drawn to opera for it offered them new challenges and more artistic latitude than had sacred music.


Female love is a rare topic in antiquity. However Sappho, the patron saint of love between women is long identified with the Greek Island of Lesbos where the head of Orpheus still may create enchanted music.
In 2005, two scholars, Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel, announced that a recovered papyrus in the archives of Cologne University had been identified as part of a roll containing poems by Sappho. Only the fourth one thus far discovers and 2,600 years after she wrote it!
 Learn more about Sappho here

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