Neither the Eleusinian nor any other of the established mysteries of Greece obtained any influence upon the literature of the nation, since the hymns sung and the prayers recited at them were only intended for particular parts of the imposing ceremony, and were not imparted to the public. On the other hand, there was a society of persons who performed the rites of a mystical worship, but were not exclusively attached to a particular temple and festival, and who did not confine their notions to the initiated, but published them to others, and committed them to literary works. These were the followers of Orpheus (οί ‘Ορφικοί); that is to say, associations of persons, who, under the guidance of the ancient mystical poet Orpheus, dedicated themselves to the worship of Bacchus, in which they hoped to find satisfaction for an ardent longing after the soothing and elevating influences of religion. The Dionysus to whose worship these Orphic and Bacchic rites were annexed, was the Chthonian deity, Dionysus Zagreus, closely connected with Demeter and Cora, who was the personified expression not only of the most rapturous pleasure, but also of a deep sorrow for the miseries of human life. The Orphic legends and poems related in great part to this Dionysus, who was combined, as an infernal deity, with Hades; (a doctrine given by the philosopher Heraclitus as the opinion of a particular sect;) and upon whom the Orphic theologers founded their hopes of the purification and ultimate immortality of the soul. But their mode of celebrating this worship was very different from the popular rites of Bacchus. The Orphic worshippers of Bacchus did not indulge in unrestrained pleasure and frantic enthusiasm, but rather aimed at an ascetic purity of life and manners. The followers of Orpheus, when they had tasted the mystic sacrificial feast of raw flesh torn from the ox of Dionysus (ὠμοφαγία), partook of no other animal food. They wore white linen garments, like Oriental and Egyptian priests, from whom, as Herodotus remarks, much may have been borrowed in the ritual of the Orphic worship.
It is difficult to determine the time when the Orphic association was formed in Greece, and when hymns and other religious songs were first composed in the Orphic spirit. But, if we content ourselves with seeking to ascertain the beginning of higher and more hopeful views of death than those presented by Homer, we find them in the poetry of Hesiod. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, at least, all the heroes are described as collected by Zeus in the Islands of the Blessed near the ocean; according indeed to one verse (which, however, is not recognised by all critics), they are subject to the dominion of Cronus. In this we may see the marks of a great change in opinion. It became repugnant to men’s feelings to conceive divine beings, like the gods of Olympus and the Titans, in a state of eternal dissension; the former selfishly enjoying undisturbed felicity, and the latter abandoned to all the horrors of Tartarus. A humaner spirit required a reign of peace after the rupture of the divine dynasties. Hence the belief, entertained by Pindar, that Zeus had released the Titans from their chains; and that Cronus, the god of the golden age, reconciled with his son Zeus, still continued to reign, in the islands of the ocean, over the blessed of a former generation. In Orphic poems, Zeus calls on Cronus, released from his chains, to assist him in laying the foundation of the world. There is also, in other epic poets after Homer, a similar tendency to lofty and tranquillizing notions. Eugammon, the author of the Telegonia, is supposed to have borrowed the part of his poem which treated of Thesprotia, from Musæus, the poet of the mysteries, Thesprotia was a country in which the worship of the gods of death was peculiarly cultivated. In the Alcmæonis, which celebrated Alcmæon, the son of Amphiaraus, Zagreus was invoked as the highest of all the gods. The deity meant in this passage was the god of the infernal regions, but in a much more elevated sense than that in which Hades is usually employed. Another poem of this period, the Minyas, gave an ample description of the infernal regions; the spirit of which may be inferred from the fact that this part (which was called by the name of “The Descent to Hades”) is attributed, among other authors, to Cecrops, an Orphic poet, or even to Orpheus himself.
At the time when the first philosophers appeared in Greece, poems must have existed which diffused, in mythical forms, conceptions of the origin of the world and the destiny of the soul, differing from those in Homer. The endeavour to attain to a knowledge of divine and human things was in Greece slowly and with difficulty evolved from the religious notions of a sacerdotal fanaticism; and it was for a long period confined to the refining and rationalizing of the traditional mythology, before it ventured to explore the paths of independent inquiry. In the age of the seven sages several persons appeared, who, (being mainly under the influence of the ideas and rites of the worship of Apollo,) partly by a pure and holy mode of life, and partly by a fanatical temper of mind, surrounded themselves with a sort of supernatural halo, which makes it difficult for us to discern their true character. Among these persons was Epimenides of Crete, an early contemporary of Solon, who was sent for to Athens, in his character of expiatory priest, to free it from the curse which had rested upon it since the Cylonian massacre (about Olymp. 42. B.C. 612). Epimenides was a man of a sacred and marvellous nature, who was brought up by the nymphs, and whose soul quitted his body, as long and as often as it pleased; according to the opinion of Plato and other ancients, his mind had a prophetic and inspired sense of divine things. Another and more extraordinary individual of this class was Abaris, who, about a generation later, appeared in Greece as an expiatory priest, with rites of purification and holy songs. In order to give more importance to his mission, he called himself a Hyperborean; that is, one of the nation which Apollo most loved, and in which he manifested himself in person; and, as a proof of his origin, he carried with him an arrow which Apollo had given him in the country of the Hyperboreans. Together with Abaris may be mentioned Aristeas of Proconnesus, on the Propontis; who took the opposite direction, and, inspired by Apollo, travelled to the far north, in search of the. Hyperboreans. He described this marvellous journey in a poem, called Arimaspea, which was read by Herodotus, and Greeks of still later date. It consisted of ethnographical accounts and stories about the northern nations, mixed with notions belonging to the worship of Apollo. In this poem, however, Aristeas so far checked his imagination, that he only represented himself to have penetrated northwards from the Scythians as far as the Issedones; and he gave as mere reports the marvellous tales of the one-eyed Arimaspians, of the griffins which guarded the gold, and of the happy Hyperboreans beyond the northern mountains. Aristeas became quite a marvellous personage: he is said to have accompanied Apollo, at the founding of Metapontum, in the form of a raven, and to have appeared centuries afterwards, (viz. when he really lived, about the time of Pythagoras,) in the same city of Magna Græcia.
Pherecydes, of the island of Syros, one of the heads of the Ionic school, belongs to this class of the sacerdotal sages, inasmuch as he gave a mythical form to his notions about the nature of things and their internal principles. There are extant some fragments of a theogony composed by him, which bear a strange character, and have a much closer resemblance to the Orphic poems than to those of Hesiod. They show that by this time the character of the theogonic poetry had been changed, and that Orphic ideas were in vogue.
No name of any literary production of an Orphic poet before Pherecydes is known; probably because the hymns and religious songs composed by the Orphic poets of that time were destined only for their mystical assemblies, and were indissolubly connected with the rites performed at them. An extensive Orphic literature first appeared about the time of the Persian war, when the remains of the Pythagorean order in Magna Græcia united themselves to the Orphic associations. The philosophy of Pythagoras had in itself no analogy with the spirit of the Orphic mysteries; nor did the life, education, and manners of the followers of Orpheus at all resemble those of the Pythagorean league in lower Italy. Among the Orphic theologers, the worship of Dionysus was the centre of all religious ideas, and the starting point of all speculations upon the world and human nature. The worship of Dionysus, however, appears not to have been held in honour in the cities of the Pythagorean league; these philosophers preferred the worship of Apollo and the Muses, which best suited the spirit of their social and political institutions. This junction was evidently not formed till after the dissolution of the Pythagorean league in Magna Græcia, and the sanguinary persecution of its members, by the popular party (about Olymp. 69. 1. B.C. 504). It was natural that many Pythagoreans, having contracted a fondness for exclusive associations, should seek a refuge in these Orphic conventicles, sanctified, as they were, by religion. Several persons, who are called Pythagoreans, and who were known as the authors of Orphic poems, belong to this period; as Cercops, Brontinus, and Arignote. To Cercops was attributed the great poem called the “Sacred Legends” (ίεροί λόγοι), a complete system of Orphic theology, in twenty-four rhapsodies; probably the work of several persons, as a certain Diognetus was also called the author of it. Brontinus, likewise a Pythagorean, was said to be the author of an Orphic poem upon nature (φυσικὰ), and of a poem called “The Mantle and the Net” (πέπλος καί δίκτυον), Orphic expressions symbolical of the creation. Arignote, who is called a pupil, and even a daughter, of Pythagoras, wrote a poem called Bacchica. Other Orphic poets were Persinus of Miletus, Tiinocles of Syracuse, Zopyrus of Heraclea, or Tarentum.
The Orphic poet of whom we know the most is Onomacritus, who, however, was not connected with the Pythagoreans, having lived with Pisistratus and the Pisistratids, and been held in high estimation by them, before the dissolution of the Pythagorean league. He collected the oracles of Musæus for the Pisistratids; in which work, the poet Lasus is said (according to Herodotus) to have detected him in a forgery. He also composed songs for Bacchic initiations; in which he connected the Titans with the mythology of Dionysus, by describing them as the intended murderers of the young god; which shows how far the Orphic mythology departed from the theogony of Hesiod. In the time of Plato, a considerable number of poems, under the names of Orpheus and Musæus, had been composed by these persons, and were recited by rhapsodists at the public games, like the epics of Homer and Hesiod. The Orpheotelests, likewise, an obscure set of mystagogues derived from the Orphic associations, used to come before the doors of the rich, and promise to release them from their own sins, and those of their forefathers, by sacrifices and expiatory songs; and they produced at this ceremony a heap of books of Orpheus and Musæus, upon which they founded their promises.
In treating of the subjects of this early Orphic poetry, we may remark, first, that there is much difficulty in distinguishing it from Orphic productions of the decline of paganism; and, secondly, that a detailed explanation of it would involve us in the mazes of ancient mythology and religion. We will, therefore, only mention the principal contents of these compositions; which will suffice to give an idea of their spirit and character. We shall take them chiefly from the Orphic cosmogony, which later writers designate as the common one (η συνήθης),—for there were others still more wild and extravagant,—and which probably formed a part of the long poetical collection of “Sacred Legends,” which has been already mentioned.
We see, at the very outset of the Orphic theogony, an attempt to refine upon the theogony of Hesiod, and to arrive at higher abstractions than his chaos. The Orphic theogony placed Chronos, Time, at the head of all things, and conferred upon it life and creative power. Chronos was then described as spontaneously producing chaos and æther, and forming from chaos, within the æther, a mundane egg, of brilliant white. The mundane egg is a notion which the Orphic poets had in common with many Oriental systems; traces of it also occur in ancient Greek legends, as in that of the Dioscuri; but the Orphic poets first developed it among the Greeks. The whole essence of the world was supposed to be contained in this egg, and to grow from it, like the life of a bird. The mundane egg, which included the matter of chaos, was impregnated by the winds, that is, by the æther in motion; and thence arose the golden-winged Eros. The notion of Eros, as a cosmogonic being, is carried much further by the Orphic poets than by Hesiod. They also called him Metis, the mind of the world. The name of Phanes first became common in Orphic poetry of a later date. The Orphic poets conceived this Eros-Phanes as a pantheistic being; the parts of the world forming, as it were, the limbs of his body, and being thus united into an organic whole. The heaven was his head, the earth his foot, the sun and moon his eyes, the rising and setting of the heavenly bodies his horns. An Orphic poet addresses Phanes in the following poetical language: “Thy tears are the hapless race of men; by thy laugh thou hast raised up the sacred race of the gods.” Eros then gives birth to a long series of gods, similar to that in Hesiod. By his daughter, Night, he produces Heaven and Earth; these then bring forth the Titans, among whom Cronus and Rhea become the parents of Zeus. The Orphic poets, as well as Hesiod, made Zeus the supreme god at this period of the world. He was, therefore, supposed to supplant Eros-Phanes, and to unite this being with himself. Hence arose the fable of Zeus having swallowed Phanes; which is evidently taken from the story in Hesiod, that Zeus swallowed Metis, the goddess of wisdom. Hesiod, however, merely meant to imply that Zeus knows all things that concern our weal or woe; while the Orphic poets go further, and endow their Zeus with the anima mundi. Accordingly, they represent Zeus as now being the first and last; the beginning, middle, and end; man and woman; and, in fine, everything. Nevertheless, the universe was conceived to stand in different relations to Zeus and to Eros. The Orphic poets also described Zeus as uniting the jarring elements into one harmonious structure; and thus restoring, by his wisdom, the unity which existed in Phanes, but which had afterwards been destroyed, and replaced by confusion and strife. Here we meet with the idea of a creation, which was quite unknown to the most ancient Greek poets. While the Greeks of the time of Homer and Hesiod considered the world as an organic being, which was constantly growing into a state of greater perfection; the Orphic poets conceived the world as having been formed by the Deity out of pre-existing matter, and upon a predetermined plan. Hence, in describing creation, they usually employed the image of a “crater,” in which the different elements were supposed to be mixed in certain proportions; and also of a “peplos,” or garment, in which the different threads are united into one web. Hence “Crater,” and “Peplos,” occur as the titles of Orphic poems.
Another great difference between the notions of the Orphic poets and those of the early Greeks concerning the order of the world was, that the former did not limit their views to the present state of mankind; still less did they acquiesce in Hesiod’s melancholy doctrine of successive ages, each one worse than the preceding; but they looked for a cessation of strife, a holy peace, a state of the highest happiness and beatitude of souls at the end of all things. Their firm hopes of this result were founded upon Dionysus, from the worship of whom all their peculiar religious ideas were derived. According to them, Dionysus-Zagreus was a son of Zeus, whom he had begotten, in the form of a dragon, upon his daughter Cora-Persephone, before she was carried off to the kingdom of shadows. The young god was supposed to pass through great perils. This was always an essential part of the mythology of Dionysus, especially as it was related in the neighbourhood of Delphi; but it was converted by the Orphic poets, and especially by Onomacritus, into the marvellous legend which is preserved by later writers. According to this legend, Zeus destined Dionysus for king, set him upon the throne of heaven, and gave him Apollo and the Curetes to protect him. But the Titans, instigated by the jealous Here, attacked him by surprise, having disguised themselves under a coating of plaster (a rite of the Bacchic festivals), while Dionysus, whose attention was engaged with various playthings, particularly a splendid mirror, did not perceive their approach. After a long and fearful conflict the Titans overcame Dionysus, and tore him into seven pieces, one piece for each of themselves. Pallas, however, succeeded in saving his palpitating heart, which was swallowed by Zeus in a drink. As the ancients considered the heart as the seat of life, Dionysus was again contained in Zeus, and again begotten by him. Zeus at the same time avenges the slaughter of his son by striking and consuming the Titans with his thunderbolts. From their ashes, according to this Orphic legend, proceeded the race of men. This Dionysus, torn in pieces and born again, is destined to succeed Zeus in the government of the world, and to restore the golden age. In the same system Dionysus was also the god from whom the liberation of souls was expected; for, according to an Orphic notion, more than once alluded to by Plato, human souls are punished by being confined in the body, as in a prison. The sufferings of the soul in its prison, the steps and transitions by which it passes to a higher state of existence, and its gradual purification and enlightenment, were all fully described in these poems; and Dionysus and Cora were represented as the deities who performed the task of guiding and purifying the souls of men.