What is meant by Bacchic Orphism

It is often asserted that the Starry Bull tradition is an emergent strain of Bacchic Orphism. Considering how controversial the subject of Orphism is within the field of ancient Greek studies, one cannot simply claim Orphic inspiration without clearly articulating how that is understood and where one falls on certain issues.

I believe that Orphism was originally a Thracian cult of ecstasy that came to Athens with the slave population along with the rites of Kotys, Bendis and Sabazios. Back in their native country the devotees of the cult would work themselves up into a frenzy through music and dance and at the height of their fervor they would become possessed by the severed head of their master and start singing inspired verse. Their songs were magic charms and prophecies, praises of the great hunter who rules below and arcane revelations of the time before time and all that came after.

The Athenian masters were enraptured by the slave songs but did not fully understand what they were hearing. For instance they believed that all of the songs were songs of one man, Orpheus, and they wrote the songs down to preserve them. Or tried to, but the songs were never the same. Each time a man sang it was through inspiration, describing what he saw through the eyes of the hero. He showed each one different things depending on what he or his community needed most at the time. A song to soothe beasts, a song to heal, a song to make the grapes grow, a song to appease the ancestors. The head showed them myths and the myths showed them what ceremonies needed to be performed.

This confounded the Athenians. They wanted the songs to be neat, ordered, systematic the way they were making the epics of Homer. They tried hard to reconcile the different myths, stitching them together and cutting off the rough edges that stuck out.

And once they had civilized this Thracian faith, found a place for the master singer among the ranks of their civic heroes — it was okay for their wives and sons to take part in these exotic rites. Within a couple generations of gaining such acceptability one started getting disciples of Orpheus knocking at the door peddling their sacred books and rituals of purification.

For a modest fee the Orpheotelest would sit the initiate on a three-legged camp stool, daub their face with white clay or ash and then dance around them carrying spears, torches and mirrors and chanting in a mix of Greek and barbaric nonsense. Eggs and snakes and similar items were brought out and ritually handled and by the end of the proceedings harmful emotions had been purged or generational curses removed so that the person was good with their ancestral dead.

Sometimes these disciples of Orpheus were sincere and proved it through austerity and the great number of taboos they observed — and others were just in it for the drachmas. Unfortunately there were enough of the latter that Orphism gained a reputation for fraud and deceit. Many, like Plato, saw value in the beliefs associated with Orphism while vigorously denouncing those who carried out fraud in his name. Orpheus was too deeply entrenched in Hellenic tradition at that point to pry him loose — especially considering his associations with the mysteries and important cult centers.

The trajectory was a little different for Orphism in Southern Italy. You don’t see the same proliferation of competing cosmographies — in fact there’s remarkably little speculation of that sort compared to what you find in, say, Damascius or the Derveni Papyrus. There is also a much stronger emphasis placed on Dionysos.

The myth of Dionysos’ travails is often treated as the central doctrine of the Orphics but that’s mostly because of our reliance on some late Neoplatonic commentators. Most earlier, authentic Orphic material tends to focus on the successive generations of gods and the attempt by Zeus to consolidate his power rather than Dionysos who is often omitted outright or only briefly alluded to. Except in Magna Graecia where Orphism was all about Dionysos. And a large part of why we have that association between Dionysos and Orphism is because some of the most important commentators we draw on were discussing the beliefs of the Italian Orphics. Pindar, one of our first witnesses to a grieving Persephone and a Dionysos who intercedes with the dead, wrote much of his verse for the Sicilian court. Many later authors placed the seduction of Kore and Dionysos’ katabasis in Italy. Orphic themes dominated the religious art of Magna Graecia and also influenced figures such as Pythagoras and Empedokles.

It’s interesting to contemplate the differences between Athenian and Italian Orphism, especially since we have such a wide body of material to draw on. In fact that’s one of the most striking differences between them — in Athens Orphism is predominantly a literary phenomenon. The Orphic is easily recognized by his stack of books. But in Italy we have an abundance of visual representations to draw on. In fact the majority of art from Magna Graecia betrays an Orphic influence, even if it’s a subtle one. Italy has its Orphic texts too — many of the gold lamellae buried with the initiates or those who wished to reap the benefits that the mysteries conferred even if they had not actually gone through the rites, were found in Italy. But these texts refer to common motifs also found in the art of the region and not abstract cosmogonies. In fact Orphism in Italy is largely focused on the underworld and the soul’s journey through it to reach chthonic Dionysos, the liberator and bridegroom. He may have suffered dismemberment and other vicissitudes but he is fully restored in his power and offers restoration to those who call upon him.

This is a tradition that seeks visions and encounters with the gods and spirits through ecstatic techniques and strives to give expression to these things through artistry. Poetry is not intended to provide a factual narrative — it evokes and alludes. It shrouds what is real in a veil of fantastic imagery so that we can comprehend it even before we have a direct encounter with it. That encounter is what matters and it will never be quite like it is in the stories, even though the rough pattern remains the same. It is only when you have lived the myth and lived it idiosyncratically that you will truly understand what the story was talking about, which parts were real and which parts make believe. And let me tell you — the stuff that’s most true is never what you’re expecting it to be.

So in summation, the Bacchic Orphic tradition of which the Starry Bull tradition is an offshoot is predominantly a cult of ecstasy that seeks to bring about release, purification and revitalization through music, dance, ritual drama, feasting, sacrifice and direct communion with gods and spirits. By means of these cures it helps the individual dissolve social pressures, psychological imbalances, ancestral wounds and physical infirmities which are often tangled up together.

When the lifeforce becomes sublimated and sluggish and burdened by excessive cares it tends to create illness (spiritual and physical) within the individual which can go on to infect whole communities. Through the above mentioned actions the lifeforce is stirred and strengthened, often by inducing a crisis state that results in a frenzied climax enabling it to cleanse and recalibrate itself. This recalibration can produce the formation of a new identity, particularly if it is brought about by rites of initiation. Described another way, we are inducing altered states of consciousness or mild forms of madness to inoculate ourselves against more severe expressions of madness. Beyond healing there are many fruits of this madness including creative inspiration, access to other planes of knowledge, communion with gods and spirits, increased strength and potency and temporary imperviousness to pain and other physical limitations.